In “Driving the King,” Ravi Howard imagines what it might have been like if singer Nat King Cole had been a figurehead of the civil rights movement. Given that Cole was not a driving force during the civil rights era, Howard’s choices in this fitfully moving novel are daring.
In Howard’s version of the story, Nat Cole and his fictional driver, Nat Weary, are bound together by a single, wanton act of violence. During a Cole concert in Montgomery, Ala., the singer is attacked on stage by a white assailant, only to be rescued by Weary, who bludgeons the attacker with a microphone. For this act, he gets 10 years in Kilby prison and is subjected to all manner of deprivation, including bearing witness to the daily executions that take place in the prison yard: “We knew the chair was hot when the lights blinked once, twice, or maybe three times if the first jolt didn’t finish a man.”
A decade later, Weary is released into a world he still recognizes as segregated, but there are new energies stirring things up among his people back home in Montgomery. Some of these folks, including his ex-girlfriend Mattie, are involved in the famous bus boycott that began with Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat.
Howard is good at laying out the civil rights landscape as it was just beginning to take shape in the early ‘50s; there is much fear, uncertainty and trepidation mixed in with the hope that things will invariably change for the better.
Cole doesn’t forget what Weary did for him on that Alabama stage and takes him on as his factotum. Cole then decides that he will revisit Montgomery to finish the show that was cut short a decade earlier. (In point of fact, Cole, who had been attacked at a show in Birmingham, vowed never to play the South again.)
Howard intercuts scenes from the day leading to the concert with memories from Weary’s past, a narrative gambit that doesn’t always work. Individual scenes, such as Weary’s attempted reconciliation with Mattie, the girl he was to marry before being incarcerated, are heartbreaking. But the lack of momentum and Howard’s constant resetting of time and place mean the novel builds toward its conclusion by fits and starts.
Cole too remains curiously out of focus. There are only a handful of scenes involving the singer, and they are some of the strongest in the book, which leaves the reader wondering why he isn’t more present. In one such scene Weary takes Cole back to the prison in Montgomery where Weary served time for the crime that saved Cole’s neck. Cole, a man who is well aware that a few good turns of luck and talent have spared him places such as this, secretly tosses out packs of cigarettes from his car to some of Weary’s old cellmates: “When we’d rounded a corner, beyond sight of the road guards and the towers, Nat started throwing while his music played…. He was still a good shot, throwing menthol boxes along the prison road and finding the tallest clusters of chickweed where nobody would find what we’d left unless he knew to look.”
Although he is a beloved public figure, Cole isn’t immune from the sting of Jim Crow. His new network TV variety show should be a triumph, but instead Cole scrambles for sponsors. At one point, Cole tapes his own promotional spot for the TV show out of his own pocket, tooling around Hollywood in an Alfa Romeo, because “they didn’t advertise on U.S. television, so they’d never had a chance to turn him down.”
The hard-won, incremental victories happening back in Weary’s hometown have had little effect on Cole’s career in Los Angeles; this giant talent remains ostracized by a Hollywood power structure that profits from having someone like Pat Boone appropriate R&B songs for white audiences.
Considering how much license Howard takes with Cole’s life story, the narrative is curiously inert, though not without its moments of grace and pathos. By giving Cole his due as an African American performer who struggled on his own at a time when no support structure existed to prop him up, Howard has done the great singer a solid. But the spectral nature of Cole’s presence in “Driving the King” is ultimately an exercise in frustration. Nat Weary is a man out of time, thrust headlong into a burgeoning movement. Cole is a man out of the story’s frame, out of reach and thus too inchoate to earn our compassion.
Weingarten’s books “Here She Comes Now” and “Thirsty” will be published later this year.
Driving the King
Harper: 336 pp., $25.99