Ravi Howard's "Driving the King" is ostensibly the story of two Nathaniels: Nathaniel Cole, aka Nat "King" Cole, and his driver, Nathaniel Weary, who are thrown violently together one night in Montgomery, Ala., at the close of World War II. Both men hail from Montgomery, but each has been away, Cole making a big name for himself in the California music industry and Weary fighting for the cause of freedom in Europe.
With that other war won, Weary must wage one more fight for freedom, this time on his own home turf. While Cole is performing in Montgomery, he is attacked onstage by a mob of white thugs. Weary, having survived the beaches of Normandy, leaps forever from the side of his fiancée and his assured future, over the balcony rail and bolts onto the stage to defend a besieged Cole. Weary cracks one the attackers in the mouth with a microphone. It earns him a 10-year stint in the state prison, but that action also seals the bond between the two men, which is the crux of the novel.
It's Weary who tells the story, moving us seamlessly through time, back and forth between the fateful night of the disrupted event, his time behind bars, his life as Cole's driver and bodyguard in L.A., all building toward the day on which the book opens, Cole's return to Montgomery to finish the concert he had begun some 10 years earlier.
History is usually thrown at us point-blank. We memorize the dates, list the major actors and study the lasting impact. But oftentimes history is best experienced on the periphery, in the stories of the accidental witnesses whose lives play out their drama in the lesser eddies, not in the rushing currents of momentous events.
By following Howard's characters, we are allowed a sidelong but penetrating glimpse into one of the most important events in American history, the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott, a cause initiated by Rosa Parks and amplified by a young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, those two appear in the book, but only briefly.
We learn the texture of their world by following the two Nates as they navigate the United States as black men. Granted, Howard bends history a bit, proving that the past can be best felt through refracted light rather than under the harsh glare of historical fact.
Through Cole, Howard gives us an intimate look at the racism faced by a black entertainer of unquestionable talent as he strives to make it in a world reserved for whites only. Howard's narrator, Weary, a soldier weary of fighting, guides us in his even, sometimes detached voice, totally lacking in self-pity, through the detail and nuance of that era.
Weary's dispassionate voice is perfect, for over it we can easily hear the growing rumble of righteous anger that launched the civil rights movement.
Jonathan Odell is a native Mississippian who has made Minneapolis his home. He is the author of "The Healing" and his next novel, "Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League," will be published in February by Maiden Lane Press.