It’s 1945 and soldier Nathaniel Weary has just returned from fighting in Europe to his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. Dressed in uniform, his pockets full of military pay, his head full of dreams, he attends a concert and winds up in jail. Fast forward to 1955. Released from prison, Weary emerges into a world that has progressed without him and returns to an unrecognizable hometown. There’s a new airport, television has replaced radio, and black people are boycotting the buses. He has a lot of catching up to do.
Any reader first picking up a novel entitled Driving the King might well imagine “the King” to be Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll; Jesus, The King of Kings and Lord of Lords; or MLK, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. But “the King” in Ravi Howard’s second novel is Nat King Cole, legendary jazz pianist and singer.
In Howard’s novel, Nat King Cole and Nat Weary are two Alabama boys who both return to Montgomery shortly after the conclusion of World War II. Cole intends to give a concert; Weary intends to reclaim the life he had before the war, marry and start a family. During the concert, Weary saves Cole from an attack by a white mob. Weary is then sentenced to ten years of hard labor. Once his time is served, Weary becomes Cole’s chauffeur out in Los Angeles. Howard’s story seems to be straightforward and clear: one man sacrifices to save another, and the other repays him by offering him a life and career to replace the one he lost. But is it so easy to start over? How can Weary reenter a world that has moved on without him? How can Weary even begin to measure all of the moments of living that he has lost?
Howard’s questions have no easy answers. Although Nat King Cole appears as a character, Driving the King is neither a titillating exposé nor a documentary of a celebrity’s life. Weary’s predicament drives the novel. Readers see him return to Alabama after serving ten years in prison for committing a heroic act that saved a cultural icon. Though he is lucky to have an offer of employment from the famous singer, Weary struggles to reassemble his life, hampered by memories and the passage of time.
Howard organizes the novel into three distinct timelines— the night of the 1945 concert, Weary’s ten years jail sentence, and the year after his release—that he deliberately blurs and blends. The reader experiences time as Nat Weary experiences it, living in multiple timelines where the past pushes up against the present; where memories obscure the routine of everyday life. In the present-day chapters, Weary moves through the world like Rip Van Winkle—a man who has slept for a millennium and awoke to a new, unrecognizable world. Howard observes Weary’s world down to its most minute detail. When he first sees his father (a man who “Father[ed] from the front seat of his car”) after getting out of prison, Weary observes:
His whiskers and glasses pressed into me. I stood against his taxi, as I had done so many times as a boy, handing him rolls of quarter and dimes and fare slips. 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 the bone. I couldn’t tell his pulse from mine, and that was better than anything.
Next on the list, after visiting his family, is visiting prostitutes. Howard’s language is arresting and memorable:
Los Angeles was a place full of strangers, and I made the most of it. I could be a brand-new man every other night or so. Let a woman call me by a borrowed name. It didn’t matter that she forgot it as soon as I was dressed and gone, because I forgot hers as well. The part of my mind where I did my loving and remembering had been cut back to the root. It would come back, eventually, but until then all I could handle was the skin-deep loving that I paid good money for.
Nobody that Weary encounters questions his decision to sacrifice himself for Nat King Cole. Howard subtly shows that Weary’s action at the concert is just as heroic as his military action in Europe, but he is penalized for the former and commended for the latter. Howard shows Weary’s defense of Cole as an act equally important to Civil Rights progress as bus boycotts and protests. Shrugging it off, Weary says, “All I did was stand between a friend and his trouble.”
Driving the King is a skillful depiction of the difficulties of moving forward while trying to resolve the conflicts of the past. The author’s restraint mirrors the protagonist’s. In war and in prison, Weary has learned to swallow his rage lest it consume him, to hide the anger and present a neutral expression that will not alarm onlookers. Weary’s palpable rage is buried so that he may survive and endure: “I had learned to hide any worry or tremble deep down in my gut, leave it where I had buried so much already.” Nat Weary is no Bigger Thomas, full of fire and fury. The racism and injustice he faces push him toward respectability rather than criminality, but even respectability fails. Readers wait for his stoic nature to erupt, all the while absorbing an understanding of what it means to walk in his shoes and live with his reckoning of loss.
Amina Gautier is the author of three short story collections: At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy and The Loss of All Lost Things. At-Risk was awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award, The First Horizon Award, and the Eric Hoffer Legacy Fiction Award. Now We Will Be Happy was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, the Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Book Award and a USA Best Book Award. The Loss of All Lost Things was awarded the Elixir Press Award in Fiction and is forthcoming in 2016. Gautier’s stories have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Agni, Callaloo, Glimmer Train, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Review. Gautier has been the recipient of grants and fellowships from Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Callaloo, Hawthornden, Hurston/Wright Foundation, Key West Literary Seminars, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, the MacDowell Colony, the Ragdale Foundation, the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, Ucross, and the Vermont Studio Center. Gautier teaches in the MFA program at the University of Miami.