Driving the King by Ravi Howard
Reviewed by Michelle Newby
Driving the King by Ravi Howard evokes the effects of the Jim Crow South, both the daily humiliations and the blatantly outrageous ruination of lives, as they are felt by all levels of “Colored” society, both the janitors and the Nat King Coles. Over the course of a single day during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s, interspersed with flashbacks of the events leading up to this day, Howard mixes historical fact and speculative fiction to take us on a journey with Nat Cole and his driver/bodyguard Nathaniel Weary.
One of those lesser-known historical facts is that Nat Cole was the victim of attempted murder onstage by a group of white men while giving a concert in his hometown of Montgomery in 1956. The author takes this incident and imagines what might have happened had a black man from the audience, the fictional Nathaniel Weary, come to Cole’s defense. What happens in Driving the King is Mr. Weary is charged with attacking the perpetrators, goes to prison on a ten-year sentence for aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and inciting a riot.
“I had to stop yearning for the world. There was no place left for ambition. So after all those hollowed-out years, pumping gas in a filling station five miles from Kilby [the prison] was dream enough. It was damn near heaven.”
Then a bit of Karma: upon completing his sentence Weary accepts a job offer from Nat King Cole and leaves Alabama for Los Angeles. Didn’t someone once say that living well is the best revenge?
But what happened in Montgomery haunts Cole and Weary. Cole says, “I think about Montgomery and I don’t hear any music. I see a man with a pipe. You [Weary] in prison. If I remember it like that, then I wonder if that’s how the homefolk remember me.” So Cole and Weary return to Alabama in an attempt to right history and negate the power of that memory with a new memory. Weary thinks, “I hoped for him the same thing I hoped for myself. We could hear the old sound for only a few hours more, until the show gave us a brand-new memory, loud enough to make that long-ago noise nothing more a whisper.” When they return to Montgomery the bus boycott has been ongoing successfully for a year.
“Half of Montgomery walked with their work whites wrapped up or folded inside out to keep them clean through all that traveling. Every season brought a different kind of road dust – pollen, red dirt, mud, crushed leaves. The boycott was a new kind of season, and it had brought problems besides the dust and the weather.”
Those problems include threats, being hit by cars and arrested for carpooling. Weary captures the conflicting feelings: “I loved my people for fighting, but hated the reason why, and that left me with that crosscut notion of pride and anger pulling in different directions, two kinds of muscle fighting for the same piece of bone.”
Ravi Howard’s writing flows smoothly throughout Driving the King as he moves backward and then forward in time to tell the history of these lives, individually and collectively. The plot is well-constructed and the pacing well-calibrated. Howard has a talent for a turn of phrase that is simultaneously simple and richly evocative. The first time Weary sees his father after being released from prison:
“Then he dropped his head once more, this time on my arm…My father’s hands were leaner than they had once been. We had both aged more than we should have, and the only muscle left was the rugged kind that clung close to home. I couldn’t tell his pulse from mine, and that was better than anything.”
The humor in Driving the King is restrained but smart and effective. A love interest of Weary’s in LA on the advisability of dating someone new:
“Your first Christmas out here away from your people. My people warned me about meeting a man around the holidays. It’s winter and folks go out with their pores open, liable to catch something. Like a feeling.”
Howard makes you care about what happens to his characters without eliciting pity. Driving the King is a visceral experience of a time and place that, unfortunately, is still not behind us.