Review: Driving the King, by Ravi Howard
Harper, 2015. 325 pp. $26.
It’s November 1945, and Nat Weary, home from French and Belgian battlefields, wants nothing more than to marry his sweetheart and settle down to the life that World War II interrupted. He’s got a perfect proposal setup, too. Weary’s boyhood friend, the up-and-coming Nat King Cole, is in town to perform and has agreed to cue the big question from the stage. What could be more romantic?
But this is Montgomery, Alabama, where the unwritten law–the law that matters–says that African-Americans have no right to count on anything except humiliation and heartache. When a white man rushes the stage and attacks Cole with a lead pipe, Weary leaps to his friend’s defense, battering the assailant with a microphone. The white man gets three years; Weary gets ten. Once more, his life is interrupted, but this time, his fight against a racist enemy brings no reward except the belief he did the right thing. A decade and its promise have been stolen from him, simply because he’s black.
What I like the best about Driving the King–and there’s much to like–is that the narrative shows the moment-to-moment calculations, adjustments, and self-restraints an African-American must undertake to remain safe, which take such a drastic toll on the body and spirit. Safe is of course a relative term, because there are no guarantees or minimum standards. As the magnificent, harrowing prison scenes reveal, there’s always more to lose, unless you’re dead, which means there are always more games to play to keep life a hair’s-breadth more bearable.
Weary’s voice, as his name aptly suggests, is tired, measured, tamping down the fury only far enough so that it doesn’t cost him. A more passionate narrative would be hard to find. Yet Howard never lectures, rants, or explains, letting the story (and its images) do the work. What more fitting metaphor could describe the contest between Weary and the white thug–unequal in the eyes of the law–than a battered microphone? Weary, after all, has no voice that any power will listen to, and he may shout all he likes, but no one will ever hear. Likewise, when he recalls German wartime brutalities against his captured comrades, it’s plain that he’s also thinking about American racists.
The Germans had taken their time, bayoneting them and cutting off fingers. Those spared the knife were beaten. Maybe the marks had come from rifle butts or boots, but whatever the weapon was, they’d struck them over and over. My mind filled up with that sickest kind of wondering, thinking about who had to be the first to feel it coming down. I wondered who was the last and had to see the rest die before he did.
From such a powerful start, Driving the King should go farther than it does. Most of the second half is entirely predictable, and though Weary’s struggles to cope with his losses earn all my empathy, the tension drains, and the ending feels anticlimactic. It doesn’t help that the narrative repeatedly (and annoyingly) jumps back and forth in time, for no particular purpose I can see except to delay the inevitable.
This is unfortunate, because the novel offers a worthy subplot, the Montgomery bus boycott that takes place after Weary’s released from prison. The boycott involves many, many courageous people, of whom Rosa Parks was neither the first nor the last. Weary’s relatives take an active part; a young Martin Luther King makes a cameo appearance; and Almena Lomax, who ran an African-American newspaper in Los Angeles, figures heavily in the story.
But where’s Weary himself? Working for Nat Cole in LA, which leaves him on the sidelines. There’s a lot about bringing Cole back to Montgomery for a gig, but though the two men treat that as unfinished business, it feels small next to everything else. I don’t know whether Howard felt hampered by the historical record or thought his narrative delivered fully on its promise, but I wish he’d chosen otherwise.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.