by Pete Dexter

(Doubleday, 352 pages, $26)

Puget Sound-based Pete Dexter writes a novel unnerving enough to make any reader squirm. He channels this tension into a soul-gripping story played out by believable characters with inescapable motivations. He happily avoids stuffing in any of the gratuitous snot and vomit often favored by some of our renowned "edgy" writers, but there are shocks: a sliced-off nipple, a rape that permanently rearranges the victim's genitalia, a pitiful man who eats pet flamingoes. Raw at its rawest.

Train, the title character, is an 18-year-old from poor circumstances who survives every obstacle by remaining super-cool. He develops a natural talent for golf and defeats the best country-club players, though he can't go into the clubhouse to collect the bets. Train is neither black nor African-American; rather, in this tale he is variously "Negro," "colored" or "nigger."

Collecting the clubhouse bets is his sponsor and mentor, Miller Packard, another super-cool man who, in the face of ultimate crisis, proves not quite cool enough. The physically and emotionally damaged Norah plays the third point in a triangle fated to rack up disaster. Packard is the catalyst. He is a police officer of the Dirty Harry school, kind to his friends, ruthless to his enemies. Norah plays the victim who provides the jumping-off place for the action when her husband is cruelly murdered and she herself is violated.

The ending crashes down around us in a shocking fashion. Still, the reader can see the clues were there, festering away. Dexter won the National Book Award for the excellent Paris Trout, and this novel should further enhance his reputation.

Dexter will read at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3721 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 238-1668. 7:30 pm Thursday, Oct. 9.