Train Whistle Guitar offers a story of a black boy’s preadolescent and adolescent seasons in a small town deep in the South during the decade after World War I. The story is told by the man whom the boy has become, recounting his memories after he has gone away to college, served in World War II, and made somebody out of himself, as he was born marked to do. He has also been marked for life by his education in that small-town community and culture. The events of the story are the remembered highpoints in a daily dialogue, one carried out between the child and his community and between the conscious and unconscious (or spontaneous and reflective) selves of that child. The story implies a dialogue between the narrator’s childhood self and adult self, the facts of his growing and the art of his telling of it—what, in memory and crafted language, can now be made of that growing. As memory and art thus valorize life, the feature that emerges as most meaningful is the boy’s daily education, partly in school but most clearly out of school.
Like many novels of the early education of a heart, Train Whistle Guitar is episodic in its plot structure. What is remembered and told is what was felt as adventure by the boy. The story therefore moves as the boy felt life to move, from worthy time to worthy time, with only a sense of lull filling in the time between, like the steady rhythm of a drum or heart. Those experiences were intuited by the boy to be charged with meaning, but the full revelatory quality of their meaning has come to be known only later, in their telling as story.
The story is told in the first person, in the past...
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