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Driving the King: A Novel by Ravi Howard
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Driving the King: A Novel (2015)

by Ravi Howard

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This book has an interesting setup. At the start of the novel, Nat King Cole has come back to Alabama for the first time since being attacked by a mob while performing there years ago. On the heels of losing his show, Cole links up with the other Nathaniel, his driver and our fictional narrator. Nathaniel Weary is trying to bounce back after his recent release from prison, a harsh punishment brought about by his defending a childhood friend.

Told from Weary's perspective as he recalls Jim Crow injustices and Nat's friendship, the book spins a convincing behind-the-scenes tale about loyalty, the period, and people who lived through it all.

The story is more about Nathaniel Weary's life and his early history with Nat King Cole in the Jim Crow era than it is about the Nat King Cole himself. It took a little while for me to get into the story because the narrator's voice is unusual, and plus the narrative is nonlinear. It's a different kind of flow. Besides that snag, this book is an engaging read. 3.5 stars. ( )
  cosiari | Jul 3, 2016 |
We are taken back to 1950's, pre-Civil Rights era, United States. Nat Weary has the ring ready to propose to his girl during a Nat King Cole concert. White men storm the stage and begin to beat Cole and his band members. Weary vaults onto the stage from the balcony and saves Cole's life. In Alabama, this draws him a 10 year sentence in prison. When he get released, Cole hires him as his driver. Weary is then poised as witness to the discrimination of black in L.A. as contrasted to the South. This is a terrific portrayal of a snippet of history told from the eyes of a poor, southern, black man. My thanks to the author and Goodreads for a complimentary copy. ( )
  musichick52 | May 16, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Usually after reading a novel, I wait a few days afterward to let the characters marinate in my head and reflect on the scenes that the story created for me to see. However, this story didn’t stay with me. It was a good story as I listened (Audio), but the characters went away quickly. Leaving me with the feeling that his writing and storytelling wasn’t at it’s very best.

“Driving the King” is a novel that should be classified as more of a piece of literary fiction than a historical account of the Jim Crow south during the civil rights movement era. It is really the story of a fictional character, Nat Weary, the protagonist whom is sent to prison for 10 years of hard labor after saving Nat King Cole from a racist attacker who rushed the stage during a concert in Montgomery and then serves as the singer’s personal driver for a number of years. The author does what should have been done by not focusing on the life of the attacker within his novel. Nat King Cole is more or less a minor character in this novel.

Readers should be aware it is fiction inspired by fact and not an accurate chronology of Nat King Cole's life. He brings together fact and fiction and changes the particulars of the latter to suit his timeline and the creation of the fictional character of Nathaniel Weary. I can accept that Howard took liberties to exaggerate the historical account of Nat King Cole and other historical characters.

Howard touches on the bus boycott of Alabama. He lightly mentions Claudette Colbert (a fifteen-year-old, was the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama), in which if you don’t know the history behind this crusader, she was not the chosen one to spear the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, because she was a young unwed mother. They chose Rosa Parks 9 months later. Howard also strategically inserts other historical characters important to the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Almena Lomax, African American journalist and civil rights activist. Rosa Parks. Boxer Dynamite Jackson fought out of Santa Monica, California. He won the Heavyweight Championship of California during his career. It is also reported that he owned a Jazz Club in Los Angeles in the 1940s on Central Avenue called “Dynamite Jackson’s”.

Howard penned about Nat King Cole becoming the first African-American performer to host a variety TV series in 1956. The show originally aired without a sponsor, but NBC agreed to pay for initial production costs; it was assumed that once the show actually aired and advertisers were able to see its sophistication, a national sponsor would emerge. None did; many national companies did not want to upset their customers in the South, who did not want to see a black man on TV shown in anything other than a subservient position. Although NBC agreed to continue footing the bill for the show until a sponsor could be found, star Nat 'King' Cole pulled the plug on it himself in its second season. In the 1956 season, the show had a 15-minute running time. It was expanded to a 30-minute segment in 1957. (IMDB)

Howard’s story was an entertaining novel but not a great one. it suffered from the lack of an intriguing storyline in my view. “Driving the King” didn’t quite live up to its expectations of Nat King Cole and his music or his Jim Crow experiences in real life. However, Howard has a creative narrative, and I look forward to his next book. ( )
  altima313 | Nov 16, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As a history teacher who just returned from studying Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement (often called the second reconstruction), I especially loved this audio book. Driving the King is another sad example of discrimination and racial hatred, even for the famous. This moving story of courage in the face of segregation and unrest, was lovely as an audio book, but would also be enjoyable to read. ( )
  RobynELee | Aug 5, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Ravi Howard uses some of the Nat King Cole’s story of to explore racism in America during the 50’s and 60’s. The first perspective is the Jim Crow south as viewed from Montgomery during the civil right bus boycotts. More enlightening is the more subtle forms of racism prevalent in Los Angeles at the time, especially in the entertainment industry. Cole experienced both overt (a cross was burned on his lawn) and covert, in the form of the cancellation of his television show due to lack of sponsorship notwithstanding his colossal success as an entertainer. Although Cole is a minor character in Howard’s novel, he does serve to demonstrate the prevalence of racism throughout America.

Howard uses the fictional Nat Weary as his narrator. This Nat was Cole’s childhood friend who rescues him from a brutal beating at the hands of Southern Whites during a performance in Montgomery. For his efforts, Nat serves 10 years in prison. Howard skillfully depicts the brutality and mindless hard labor that existed in Southern prisons at the time. Upon his release, Nat moves to Los Angeles to become Cole’s driver. From the dual perspectives of a decade in prison and the Los Angeles entertainment industry, Weary has a bird’s eye view of various forms of racism prevalent in America at the time. By shifting between the two settings, Howard is able to use Weary’s observations to depict both subtle and overt forms.

The plot is minimal with little drama but the writing is lyrical and the settings are well evoked. The storyline follows Cole’s decision to return to Montgomery to finish the interrupted concert. He plans to avoid the persistent civil rights tensions by delaying the announcement of the concert and choosing a black dominated venue. In actuality, Cole was not a political figure and never again performed in the South following his attack in Birmingham. The Cole character in the novel likewise is not involved in the civil rights movement, but Howard does portray him sympathetically by hiring Weary, returning to finish the concert and especially covertly visiting Weary’s inmate friends on a prison work gang.

This is a lovely novel about racism in America but plays loosely with actual history for effect. With the exception of Weary, the characters in the book are not very nuanced. Most are stereotypical blacks and Southern whites. ( )
  ozzer | May 23, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
It’s a fine idea to have a novel highlight this heartthrob. His life, like his TV show, has been overlooked. Mr. Howard’s appealing novel uses Mr. Cole more as a device than as a person, and keeps him remote much of the time. This is primarily Nat Weary’s story and a look at the dynamic stirrings of the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s; Cole is present mostly to show how irreconcilable fame and color could be. But even this book’s distortions suggest a man whose story remains barely told, while few white singers of his day are without up-to-date biographers. He may not be an ideal role model but he deserves his due.
added by ozzer | editNew York Times, JANET MASLIN (Dec 28, 2014)
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 006052961X, Hardcover)

A daring and brilliant novel that explores race and class in 1950s America, witnessed through the experiences of Nat King Cole and his driver, Nat Weary.

The war is over, the soldiers are returning, and Nat King Cole is back in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, for a rare performance. His childhood friend, Nat Weary, plans to propose to his sweetheart, and the singer will honor their moment with a special song. While the world has changed, segregated Jim Crow Montgomery remains the same. When a white man attacks Cole with a pipe, Weary leaps from the audience to defend him—an act that will lead to a ten-year prison sentence.

But the singer will not forget his friend and the sacrifice he made. Six months before Weary is released, he receives a remarkable offer: will he be Nat King Cole’s driver and bodyguard in L.A.? It is the promise of a new life removed from the terror, violence, and degradation of Jim Crow Alabama.

Weary discovers that, while Los Angeles is far different from the Deep South, it a place of discrimination, mistrust, and intolerance where a black man—even one as talented and popular as Nat King Cole—is not wholly welcome.

An indelible portrait of prejudice and promise, friendship and loyalty, Driving the King is a daring look at race and class in pre-Civil Rights America, played out in the lives of two remarkable men.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:29 -0400)

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