Review: Driving the King: A Novel by Ravi Howard

driving-the-king“A daring and brilliant new novel that explores race and class in 1950s America, witnessed through the experiences of Nat King Cole and his driver, Nat Weary
“Howard is a talent to watch.” —Washington Post Book World

The war is over, the soldiers are returning, and Nat King Cole is back in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, for a rare performance. His childhood friend, Nat Weary, plans to propose to his sweetheart, and the singer will honor their moment with a special song. But while the world has changed, segregated Jim Crow Montgomery remains the same. When a white man attacks Cole with a pipe, Weary leaps from the audience to defend him—an act that will lead to a 10-year prison sentence.

But the singer will not forget his friend and the sacrifice he. Six months before Weary is released, he receives a remarkable offer: will he be Nat King Cole’s driver and bodyguard in L.A.. It is the promise of a new life removed from the terror, violence, and degradation of Jim Crow Alabama.

Weary discovers that, while Los Angeles is far different from the deep South, it a place of discrimination, mistrust, and intolerance where a black man—even one as talented and popular as Nat King Cole—is not wholly welcome.

An indelible portrait of prejudice and promise, friendship and loyalty, Driving the King is a daring look at race and class in pre-Civil Rights America, played out in the lives of two remarkable men.” – Goodreads

In the mid-1950’s, rising star Nat King Cole traveled from Los Angeles to his home state of Alabama to play a sold-out show at a segregated theatre in Birmingham. During that show, three white men assaulted Cole onstage. In Driving the King by Ravi Howard, we are introduced to a fictional account of such an attack on Cole, and the aftermath that followed.

Nat King Cole has returned to his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama to star in a concert sure to show his former townspeople just how far he’s come. Childhood friend and recent war veteran, Nat Weary, is excited to see his old friend and to propose to his girl, Mattie, with the help of a serenade from Cole. As Weary is about to pop the question, however, he spots danger from the corner of his eye – someone is fast approaching Cole, bearing a lead pipe in his hands. Weary leaps down from the colored balcony and onto the stage to defend his friend – and because the man he fights is a white man, Weary winds up in Montgomery’s Kilby prison for the next ten years. As the time nears for Weary’s release from Kilby, he receives an offer: come to Los Angeles and be a driver and bodyguard for Cole. After years of loneliness and hard labor, anxious to escape both the Jim Crow South and the wreckage of his own past, Weary jumps at the chance to begin anew.

Weary’s narrative flows back and forth in time, opening with his and Cole’s return to Alabama in 1956 for a second chance at a concert for the people of Montgomery. As the night wears on, Weary flashes back to the fateful concert eleven years before, with the intervening years revealed in a series of flashbacks. Howard touches on many historical moments; using Weary as his guide, he weaves the man’s experiences into the heart of the beginning of the civil rights movement – most memorably, the Montgomery bus boycott, among other protests. We briefly meet such historical figures as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even journalist Almena Lomax, founder of the Los Angeles Tribune.

While Driving the King touches the surface of the civil rights movement in the United States, at no point does it delve more deeply into the subject matter. Based on the provided book summary, I had been expecting further commentary on race/class relations during the Jim Crow Era/Civil Rights Movement time frame; that this was not so was somewhat disappointing to me.

What did shine for me were Howard’s characters and the stories behind them. This, for me, is where the magic of the novel lies. Weary’s straight-talking and always observant narrative creates a rich ground for character development and I enjoyed meeting his family and acquaintances. Hearing about his family’s taxi company, his time and friends at Kilby, his brothers and sisters, as well as former flame, when he is released, and those he meets after his new beginning in California – and of course, a close-up peek at Nat King Cole. Yes – for me, the heart of this tale was with the strong and unique men and women living during these turbulent yet hopeful times.

Driving the King: A Novel by Ravi Howard: Read it today!

3 stars

Source: Free Library of Philadelphia

 

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