Driving the King

Written by Ravi Howard
Review by Sherry Jones

The timing for this book about racial inequality couldn’t be more perfect, amid protests over white police killings of black men and the disproportionately high African-American incarceration rate in U.S. prisons. Like the film Selma about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ravi Howard’s novel Driving the King reminds us of how little has changed, really – isn’t that what historical fiction is supposed to do? – and how far we remain from achieving the American ideal of liberty and justice for all.

The tale centers not on the famous African-American singer Nat King Cole but on his childhood friend Nat Weary, who saves the performer from white attackers during a concert in Montgomery, Alabama. For this heroic deed, Weary, a World War II veteran, gets ten years in prison – and, at the end of his term, a job offer from Cole, living in Los Angeles and in need of a driver. Weary accepts, and finds in L.A. a new life relatively free of racism and bigotry, while his friends and family continue to suffer and fight white supremacy in his hometown.

Here lies the rub in this otherwise wonderful book: Viewing from afar the momentous events of the era in Montgomery also detaches us from them – a shame in a book about race. We also feel detached from Cole, who expresses gratitude to Weary but little else, never fully revealing himself. The book’s uneven jumps from present to past and back again, while intended to build tension, keep us at a distance from Weary, as well.

Still, Howard’s evocative writing, his fine ear for voice, and the beautiful, intimate scenes he teases out between Weary and others – the author is a master of dialogue – make Driving the King a gratifying read, and an important one for anyone concerned about race and equality.