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By Kevin Taylor & r & Two Trains Running by Andrew Vachss -- Great books can, with an intimate examination of even a single character, cover the breathtaking sweep of larger events as a nation or a culture pivots on the fulcrum of change.


Two Trains Running is almost a great book. It aims high enough, holds its arms wide and runs full-tilt to gather up all the essence, all the layers, all the nuance and textures and smells as America changed from whatever it was back then into whatever it is now. The novel crushes this double armful of sensory overload -- raw and refined, rancid and beautiful -- against its face and inhales deeply.


In other words, it's got plenty of sweep, but it lacks the fully realized character that can interpret the onrush of events through a human heart and soul. All the characters, including the mysterious assassin Walker Dett, are merely sketches -- albeit wonderfully detailed. They never grow as humans.


The year 1959 is the fulcrum. America is still shaking off the aftermath of the Big War. Korea has laid the tracks for Vietnam. The drive for racial justice is simmering just below a boil. Personal vices are all the rage (we deserve it, don't we?).


The very tip of the fulcrum is the fictional Locke City. In danger of rusting out after World War II, it reinvents itself as a Sodom (or Gomorrah), but weirdly still has a diner where you can find great lemon pie.


The gang's all here. We have Locke City's own homegrown underworld boss -- the wheelchair-bound Royal Beaumont and his twisted sister, Cynthia. We have the Mafia, the Irish mafia, street gangs, Aryans, corrupt cops, corrupt feds and black militants smoldering behind Amos n' Andy masks.


Andrew Vachss wrote the book without chapters, skipping instead between short scenes -- all tracked by military time -- where this character or that one picks up a piece of the story and pulls it a little tauter.


The story rolls like a runaway train, even as characters get mired into long speeches as Vachss has to 'splain what's going on instead of letting someone show us. And how do all these small-time thugs agree that shadowy puppet masters are really running the world? Honestly, the quibbles get swept aside in the great rush of the story as America tips on its fulcrum.

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