David Rowell has given himself a large canvas with his new novel, The Train of Small Mercies. Leaping from city to city on the day Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train chugged slowly down the East Coast, Rowell’s cast of characters comprise the whole of an America on the cusp of major changes. The problem is, The Train of Small Mercies feels like a writer trying to create a microcosm of America on the cusp of small changes.
As usual in this type of novel, some characters ring more true than others. Chief among the stories you impatiently wait to return to are Delores, a deceptive housewife who has lied to her husband about her whereabouts and dragged her young daughter on a disastrous trip to watch the train pass, and the Irish Maeve, who is left stranded in D.C. after interviewing for a position as a nanny for RFK’s family. Less successful are Rowell’s attempts at working in larger themes. His Vietnam vet is a boring cipher, and the young African American on his first day as a Pullman porter is nothing more than a conceit—certainly not a fully realized character.
Rowell’s writing has a low-intensity burn to it and his characters are memorably odd. The frantic Delores, denying the reality of her situation by focusing on the ludicrous tasks at hand, is haunting; likewise, the quartet of too-old-to-be-hippies luxuriating in a brand-new aboveground pool are weird in their idiosyncrasies and sad interactions. But too many of the mini plots spun out over the course of the day feel like an exercise in making history personal. Although—did you know that several onlookers were hit by a train and killed while waiting for the funeral train to pass? It’s indicative of The Train of Small Mercies that this factoid is its major takeaway.
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