Looking at American history through the lens of famous figures has certainly been one of the most popular sub-genres in fiction in recent years. Blockbusters like Loving Frank (Frank Lloyd Wright) and The Paris Wife (Ernest Hemingway) come immediately to mind. Ravi Howard’s new novel uses this technique to paint a vivid portrait of race and class in post-WWII America and 1950’s Hollywood.
“The King” in the title is Nat King Cole, the singer and celebrity who made history with The Nat King Cole Show, the first television program starring an African-American. This story takes as its starting point a reimagined version of a true incident where Cole was attacked on stage by white racists. In Howard’s retelling Cole’s childhood friend and recent WWII vet Nate Weary saves the singer and is sent to prison for “inciting a riot.” The novel picks up a decade later when Nate is released from prison and Cole hires him as his driver. The friendship between these two men is what really propels the narrative.
In its starred review PW calls this a “velvety smooth fictional memoir.” I found it also to be a compelling look at recent American history–a history already being forgotten at a time when remembering could serve us all well. Ravi Howard won the 2001 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award, and his last novel with us, Like Trees, Walking; and he has also won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.
Howard moves back and forth in time, describing Weary’s days at war, his recollections of his family, his time in prison, and, eventually, his years in L.A. as Cole’s driver and bodyguard. This story about a strong man, living with his head held high, is set against the backdrop of Jim Crow and the Montgomery bus boycott. Howard’s prose goes down like the top-shelf whiskey that Weary favors, making for a heady reading experience.”
— Publishers Week (Starred Review)
“Alternating between the cities and Weary’s past and present, Howard explores race relations in the pre-civil rights era and the strong ties forged between two extraordinary men.”
Driving the King (9780060529611) by Ravi Howard. $25.99 hardcover. 1/6/15 on sale.