336pp; Genre(s): Historical Fiction, African-American
Release date: January 6, 2015
The excitement in the air is palpable as the town of Montgomery, Alabama prepares for a concert by hometown boy made good, Nat King Cole. Most excited is a former classmate of Cole who shares his name, Nat Weary. Recently returned from war, Weary plans to propose to Mattie, the woman that waited for him while he was gone. When Cole is attacked on stage, Weary comes to his defense and pays the price for defending his friend from a white man, 10 years in jail.
Not one to forget his friends, especially one whose life has been put on hold for acting on his behalf, Cole offers Weary a job upon release from prison as his driver and bodyguard in Los Angeles. Weary's role offers us a behind the scenes look at Nat King Cole as he struggles to create his television show and put it and keep it on the air, no easy feat in 1956. Away from the studio, it's a treat to watch Cole interact with his close knit staff. Much like audiences of Ava DuVernay's Selma finally get to see Dr. King portrayed in a very human way, Howard offers us the same with Nat King Cole in Driving the King.
Ravi Howard touches on so many historical aspects, using Weary as a guide point. Weary's relocation to Los Angeles and his introduction to people like Almena Lomax, who runs a local Negro paper, the third in town, brings to mind those who participated in the great migration from the south to California, extensively covered in Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. In turn, Howard uses Lomax to remind readers of the Montgomery bus boycott taking place and then drives the point home when Weary returns to Montgomery for a special concert by Cole. The 10 years in jail plus the one he spent in Los Angeles brings Weary back to a town caught up in a movement. The Mattie that he so willingly let go while he was in jail has grown into an underground leader of the boycott. Life in Montgomery has gone on without him.
I loved the characters and their background stories. As I read Driving the King, it was easy to imagine the crowd and theater gathered for the first concert and the return concert 11 years later. I could see Almena Lomax approaching Weary on the sunny streets of LA. It felt like Easy Rawlins' LA and I almost wished Weary would bump into him. Ravi Howard is a solid writer and it's been far too long between 2007's Like Trees Walking and Driving the King. Let's hope he doesn't make us wait another eight years for his next book.