‘Driving the King:’ Novel revises performer’s role in civil rights era

This historical novel by Ravi Howard, places Nat King Cole, as seen through the eyes of an ill-starred friend, at the epicenter of mid-20th-century America’s racial transformation.

In April 1956, Cole, at the crest of his widespread, cross-cultural renown as a pop vocalist, was assaulted by white supremacists while performing at the Birmingham State Theater in his native Alabama. Six months later, he became the first African-American to headline his own TV variety series, just as the epochal bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. was about to enter its second year.

Howard, whose previous novel, “Like Trees, Walking” (2007), was inspired by a real-life lynching, conflates these events into a novel of reimagined history in which the attack on Cole is pushed a decade back to Montgomery just after World War II.

An ex-GI and childhood friend of Cole’s named Nathanial Weary thrusts himself between a pipe-wielding racist and the singer’s head. Weary is charged with inciting a riot and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Upon his release, he’s hired by Cole — who’s never forgotten his friend’s sacrifice — as his bodyguard and driver in Hollywood.

Within this revisionist framework, Howard seeks to recount through Weary’s voice the harsh truths of postwar Jim Crow as it comes under direct siege in the 1950s. That narrative voice — tough, shrewd, barely containing the hurt from public and private injustices — is the novel’s finest attribute.

And yet, readers may lose their moorings within the novel’s time-shifting tactics. Not that there’s anything wrong with shifting facts in fiction for the sake of larger truths; some great Western films have come from such tactics. But you’re never altogether sure at the start of each chapter whether you’re in the ’40s or the ’50s. Such uncertainty contributes to a gauzy, almost dreamlike aura that makes the characters, even the stoic Weary, elusive, almost spectral figures. This is especially frustrating with the novel’s depiction of Cole, who is conceived with much charm, some quirky nervous tics and not much else.

Maybe Nat King Cole will always be something of a hallowed enigma among the great American musical icons. But one would think even a delicately woven novel that dares to reconfigure historical events might have taken more risks with its characterizations.

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