Driving the King
“In real life the chauffeur sees everything. He’s the perfect narrator, but working-class people’s stories are too often forgotten. Think about how many folks were not part of the record. There were 50,000 black people in Montgomery during the boycott, so you think about all of those stories that are pretty much anonymous. They’re part of the collective, and in fiction we’re peeling characters away from that collective and giving them a voice.”—Ravi Howard, interviewed by Tayari Jones
Ravi Howard’s new novel, Driving the King (Harper, $25.99), takes the true story of an attack on singer Nat King Cole at a concert in Birmingham, Alabama in 1956 and fictionalizes it by placing the event in Montgomery and by telling the story through the voice of made-up character Nat Weary. Weary leaps on stage to defend Cole and saves his life. But he has to beat up a white man to do it and he’s sentenced to ten years in prison as a result. Weary grew up with Cole and when he was released from Kilby Prison, he went to work as the singer’s driver.
The book jumps back and forth in time, which could be just a stylistic device or it could be a reflection of the end of continuity in the Southern world the book describes. It works because the novel is held in place by two parallel timelines—the Montgomery bus boycott and the entire day of a homecoming show by Nat King Cole at Montgomery’s Centennial Hotel. Make that three timelines—there’s also Weary’s ongoing relationship with Mattie, who waits for him while he fights in Europe during World War II, then marries another man while he’s in prison. Ultimately, they reconnect when she becomes a leader of the bus boycott.
“[Nat King Cole] was attacked in 1956 and I moved that moment to 1945,” Howard told Jones. “I thought the moment of his attack fit what happened when black veterans were attacked after World War II.” Howard’s protagonist Nat Weary is a victim of a legal lynching, so much so that he says of the constant ringing in his ears that was the legacy of being an artilleryman: “Some called that sound an affliction, but I had learned to love it, because that was the sound of me killing men, Germans, hell-bent on doing to me what that judge had done.”
Weary’s ears are ringing when he beats back Cole’s attacker. When asked if he used a trumpet or a trombone to do it, Weary replies: “Neither. I beat him with a microphone.” He says it matter of factly, but you can feel the satisfaction he takes from his action.
What made him do it? Three hundred years of history came to a head that night. “When I saw him swing for Nat Cole’s skull, I thought of other friends ambushed by men who’d been hiding and waiting.” Weary also said “All I did was stand between a friend and his trouble.” In Alabama in 1945, it was almost impossible to separate history in general from specific situations. Nat Weary makes that clear when he explains that he got his first name when his parents named him after Nat Turner, leader of an 1831 slave rebellion. “Mama and Pop had been called by their first names all their lives, by adults and children. It galled them to the core. So they said fine. If people were set on calling us by our first names, they would call us by these. Any name-calling might summon something my parents had planted. Everything they gave us, from our names to our work, came from that idea.”
In prison, Nat Weary is in the same cellblock as one of the Scottsboro Boys and the taste of Southern justice was often in the air: “When that wind hit us, we couldn’t help but know what was mixed in it, the last bit of breathing a man did when they strapped him in, and after that, the warm smell of his smoke.”
Even the music the prisoners made to ease the pain of work gangs prey upon Weary’s soul. “If my mind went bad before the rest of me, I hoped those songs were the first things I forgot. My worn-out memory may show me mercy in the end. It would be nice to die believing I was never there.”
Upon his release, Weary exults in the simple act of taking a walk in a straight line (“My legs were too used to turning at a fence”). It must have felt like freedom but Montgomery blacks were not free.
Almost casually, Howard brings in the realities of the South and the Civil Rights Movement that sought systemic change. He doesn’t announce it, doesn’t paint the page with ideology or rhetoric, but it’s right there. The bitter history of the past and the new history being made. The picture is razor sharp and it bleeds.
The Montgomery bus boycott wasn’t just about where people were forced to sit. Before the boycott, harassment and violence against bus riders flowed like dirty water. The bus drivers, all of them white, wore pistols on their hips and the police shot and killed a black man when he wouldn’t get off the bus.
In the novel, Nat Weary describes the buildup to the boycott. Clandestine newsletter distribution. A women’s political council. Secret meetings. Snitches. People are skeptical that it can be effective, that people will be able to organize and endure the walking and riding necessary to keep the busses empty. But then, seemingly overnight, coming at you on page 187, it happens.
This escalation brings civil rights leaders into the book. Rosa Parks. Ralph Abernathy. Nat’s father sneaks Bayard Rustin out of town in the trunk of his taxi. Meanwhile, Weary hangs out with Martin Luther King, discussing the movement, King’s piano playing, and the attack on Nat Cole.
Of course, the main celebrity in the book is Nat King Cole. “He was the most famous man, black or white, ever to be born in my hometown.” Nat Weary had driven a cab for his family’s taxi company and so you believe him when he says “Nat Cole was good cab conversation whenever his songs came on the radio. You know, he was born right here. He played the kind of music that made people tip more…as though his crooning could get somebody from here to there a little bit faster, make the ride that much smoother.”
One of the main outlets for Cole’s music in Montgomery was the radio show of George Worthy, a DJ as smooth as the King. “George put a little more space between his words and talked in a whisper, his voice turned down and softened, a little brush on a snare drum.” Pop music’s smooth luster put a shine on the dirty-shoed shout of gospel, blues, jazz, and rock and roll. It appealed to such a large audience that Nat King Cole became one of the first singers to have his own television show. But he was unable to find sponsors and had to pay for the show himself. “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark,” Cole said.
But he had bigger problems than a lack of advertising. Cole had moved to the ritzy Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles where the reception was anything but neighborly. “A bullet through a window. The IRS trying to take his house. All manner of things in the mailbox.”
Even fan mail could be dangerous. “The black stars of Hollywood had found all manner of letters from adoring folk, but they had also found straight razors and barbed needles nestled between parchments. Fingers had gone into envelopes and come out bloody.”
After the onstage assault, Cole vowed never to perform in the South again. In real life, he never did. In Driving the King, under the influence of a Nat Weary who badly wants to stage a show to make up for the one disrupted by thugs, he begins to reconsider.
“Sammy’s singing ‘Route 66’ in his Vegas show. That’s where he had that car crash. He said singing about a road he almost died on takes the sting out of driving on it. I tried to write one about Alabama, but nothing worked. Maybe coming back might do the trick.”
This is Ravi Howard conjuring up history out of thick air, since, as he told Arun Rath on NPR recently, his goal is to convey not just “what that history was, not just the facts of it, but how people might have felt within that moment.”
It’s effective in Driving the King because Howard is able to lose himself so effectively in the voice of Nat Weary. From the outside it might seem unlikely that a driver, an ex-con, could communicate for 321 pages so expressively, with so many writerly mannerisms. Yet when you’re inside the book you don’t even notice it. Howard hones in on details yet his storytelling is cinematic. It suffuses earthshaking events into the lives of its characters and vice versa, similar to films like Ruby (the Kennedy assassination) or Casablanca (World War II).
Howard uses the freedom of fiction to make connections. While working for Cole in Los Angeles, Nat Weary makes friends with the editor of a local black newspaper. He introduces her into the inner circle of the bus boycott. The result? “Before she left Los Angeles, she had written about Jim Crow in Hollywood like it was the City Lines bus, and she had written up the boycotters like they were superstars.”
Driving the King ends with the most powerful connection in the book. Busses emptied by the boycott rattle and whine as they pass the Centennial Hotel, where Nat King Cole is pouring out his heart to a full house. It’s the end of a story well-told, but obviously far from over.