Driving the King

By Ravi Howard


Harper. 336 Pages. $25.99.


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Reviewed by Joe Samuel Starnes


By the mid-1950s, Nat "King" Cole topped the charts, rivaling Frank Sinatra as the nation's top balladeer and becoming known as the "Jackie Robinson of television" for being the first black performer to host a network show.

Although his mellow style and velvet voice sold millions of records to white audiences, his star power didn't protect him from racism overt or subtle.

Ravi Howard's excellent new novel, Driving the King, is neither a factual account nor even primarily about Cole, but rather is the moving story of the narrator, Nat Weary, a fictionalized childhood friend of the singer from Montgomery, Ala., who becomes his limo driver and bodyguard under the most trying of circumstances. Howard, 40, a native of Montgomery, who now lives in Atlanta, resided in Marlton, N.J., from 2001 to 2005 when he worked for NFL Films, winning an Emmy for his production work.

When we meet Weary in the opening chapter in 1956, he is driving to the Montgomery airport to pick up Cole, returning to perform a surprise show for a black audience, when he stops to give a ride to a young couple walking to work during the bus boycott (inspired by Rosa Parks and led by a 27-year-old preacher, Martin Luther King Jr.).

Subsequent chapters take us back a decade. Weary has returned from fighting in World War II with postwar plans of driving one of his family's taxicabs and proposing to the woman who has waited for him. He prepares to give her the ring during a Cole show in Montgomery in November 1945, in the segregated upper-level Jim Crow section designated for blacks. As he is about to pop the question, a white man with a lead pipe rushes the stage and strikes Cole in the shoulder. Weary leaps from the balcony and defends his childhood friend, beating the attacker with a mic.

Weary is sentenced by an Alabama judge to 10 years in the aptly named Kilby Prison, while Cole's attacker receives only three years. Weary passes a grueling decade working on a chain gang, becoming the embodiment of his name, losing his fiancée, and barely hanging on to his spirit, which already has withstood witnessing Nazi atrocities.

Near the end of his prison term, he is offered a job as the singer's limo driver and bodyguard in Los Angeles. The job allows Weary to leave Montgomery behind and live on the glamorous fringe of Cole's celebrity, giving him a better life, but also a perspective on race nationwide. A poignant scene shows Weary and others sorting out Cole's voluminous bags of fan letters, much of it adoring, but much of it hate mail rife with racist taunts and even an occasional razor blade. Weary also witnesses firsthand Cole's frustration as his show on NBC is canceled because no national advertiser will sponsor the program in fear of upsetting white audiences.

Weary is a marvelous character who never becomes didactic. His voice is painstakingly real, precise, and authentic, allowing the reader to drop into the moment as though sitting next to him in the front passenger seat of Cole's Cadillac limousine. His is the story of black World War II veterans who fought to end fascism overseas, but returned home to institutional racism. They were no longer content to accept a system that forced their children into squalid schools, discouraged them from voting, and assigned them to filthy water fountains and the back of the bus. World War II was a catalyst, prompting blacks to demand freedom on their home soil.

What Howard does so well in Driving the King, as he did in his award-winning 2007 novel Like Trees, Walking, is to develop a storytelling perspective out of the limelight, that of someone who is not a leader, but a follower with practical concerns of family, occupation, and personal safety.

The civil rights movement was led by brave figures, many of whom paid dearly, but the movement could not have succeeded without the support of common people who stood en masse, often at great risk to their lives and livelihoods, to overcome Jim Crow. Howard's novel gives voice to the lives of these foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, whose work led to great social change.

Music aficionados may be disappointed in the lack of exploration of Cole's craft. But this is not a book about jazz, ballads, or how a piano virtuoso transformed himself into a best-selling balladeer. Readers who appreciate beautifully written, compelling novels with great depth and humanity will be more than pleased.

Joe Samuel Starnes is a novelist in Haddon Township. He works in the administration and teaches at Widener University. His third novel, "Red Dirt," will be published in the spring.