Before I read Driving the King by Ravi Howard, the name Nat “King” Cole would invoke memories of those Time-Life Records commercials from the 1980s. The name would invoke the image of still photograph of the smiling singer moving across the screen as a snippet of “Unforgettable” plays in the background. When I saw those infomercials, I wasn’t thinking of Mr. Cole as a pioneer. He had his own TV show? Never heard of it. To me, a white girl growing up in the Midwest, his voice was just one of many on a compilation album that could be mine for just one amazing low price (plus shipping and handling).
Unlike me, Ravi Howard grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, the city where Cole was born. I don’t know how much Howard knew about Cole before writing this book, but, as he mentions in the acknowledgments, he met many of the activists who boycotted the buses in his hometown. Howard decided to take the famous musician and make him a character in this novel in order to tell of the story of those many anonymous men and women who fought discrimination in the south, the ones that knew Cole as more than just another voice in their fight for equality.
Cole is not the main character in this book. Instead, Howard created a boyhood acquaintance who shares the singer first name. This other Nathaniel bears the apt surname of Weary. While Weary is invented, the incident and the conditions that land him in jail for ten years are not: Cole was attacked on stage by white supremacists during a performance in Alabama. In this Howard’s telling, Nat Weary intervenes, saves Cole, and ends up doing hard labor for his troubles.
Howard’s narrative is not linear. The story begins with Weary picking up Cole from the airport as he returns to Montgomery to give a concert. Then the reader is taken back a decade earlier to the concert interrupted. This back and forth is disorienting. However, this seems to match Weary’s internal struggle as he comes to terms with the years (and love) he lost while serving time for defending the singer.
I won my copy of this book in a giveaway on Nicole Blades’ blog, Ms. Mary Mack. I needed a book published this year as one of the tasks in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. While I may have originally thought this book was simply an opportunity to check another item off my list, it was so much more. This was a history lesson taught through story, giving me perspective on a time and place outside my experience. Through Nat, I had a glimpse into the injustices of segregation and racism. I also developed a greater appreciation for Nat King Cole. Thanks to this book, I realize he is more than just one song, but a complex man and musician who faced discrimination and hatred.