Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Driving the King

The 1956 onstage assault suffered by singer Nat King Cole in Birmingham, Alabama, made headlines around the world.  Thankfully, the three men who attacked Cole at that event accomplished little more than knocking him to the floor before they were apprehended by policemen who were there to prevent just such an incident.  King returned to the stage a few minutes after the assault and managed to finish his performance without further incident.

This is the real world event that Ravi Howard uses as the centerpiece of his new novel Driving the King - even though he moves the event back about a decade and has it take place in Montgomery rather than in Birmingham.  However, as alluded to in the book’s title, Driving the King is really the story of a fictional character who served as the singer’s personal driver for a number of years (Nat King Cole is, in fact, a relatively minor character in the book). 

Initially drawn together because they shared a first name, Nat Cole and Nat Weary were boyhood friends and classmates before King’s family moved out of Montgomery.  And now that the famous Nat King Cole has come to Montgomery to do a show, Nat Weary has a favor to ask him.  Weary wants Cole to help him propose to his girlfriend during the show – and the singer agrees to stop the show while Weary makes his move.  But when a man jumps on stage and begins beating Cole, everything goes wrong.  The proposal never happens, and Nat Weary, as a result of his aggressive defense of Cole, finds himself doing ten years of hard labor in one of Alabama’s harshest prisons.  “The King,” though, never forgets what his old friend did for him.  Upon Weary’s release from prison, Cole asks Weary to come to Los Angeles to be his driver and after much consideration Nat accepts the job. 

Author Ravi Howard
Driving the King is set in the pivotal period of race relations in this country.  The book covers in detail the Montgomery bus strike of the period, and even includes a young Martin Luther King as one of its characters.  It is a stark and vivid portrayal of Jim Crow Alabama, but it does not stop there, because Nat King Cole, as the first black performer with a television show of his own (15 minutes in length), suffered racial prejudice even in Los Angeles.  (In the real world, a cross was burned on the LA lawn of King’s home by members of the Ku Klux Klan.) 

This is an ambitious novel – and it largely accomplishes what it set out to do.  But, perhaps because so many of its characters are stereotypical (both blacks and whites), the book never fully draws the reader into the world as it was at that time.  It just does not seem real.  Nat Weary is an interesting character – and learning a bit about Nat King Cole’s personal journey is interesting – but I can’t help but feel that Driving the King could have been so much more than it is.  And that’s a shame.

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