The King Is Dead, an ambitious novel about the United States in the second half of the twentieth century, opens with a prelude delineating part of the genealogy of Walter Selby, going back as far as the year 1720. Its dual purpose seems to be to give the novel an epic, Faulknerian tone and to indicate that Selby (like many William Faulkner characters) inherited African American genes. This information is of little importance to the ensuing stories of Walter and his son Frank. (Walter, after all, is only one-sixteenth black.) It does, however, serve to make them seem somewhat more important and complex figures, just as Faulkner’s elaborate descriptions of the backgrounds and interrelationships of his characters make his barefoot southerners seem larger than life.
Walter and Frank scarcely know each other but share many characteristics. In fact, the thesis of the novel might be simply stated as “like father, like son.” They are both handsome, forceful, magnetic, ambitious individualists who have a talent for self-destruction which they seem to have inherited from several of the ancestors described in the prelude. The general idea seems to be that the United States is a fiery melting pot which produces unique, complex, and sometimes volatile characters.
Walter Selby is discharged from the Marine Corps after World War II and winds up working for the governor of Tennessee (always referred to as The Governor) as the crafty politician’s speechwriter, troubleshooter, and adviser. Walter himself is obviously headed for political success because of his dynamic personality and political moxie. He could become governor himself, or even president of the United States. He falls in love with a beautiful but rather emotionally unstable young woman named Nicole, with whom he has two children. Walter and Nicole attend obligatory social functions and are generally regarded as an ideal couple. Then tragedy strikes.
Nicole, like many politicians’ wives, feels neglected because Walter is spending more and more time traveling around the state of Tennessee, taking care of the Governor’s many political problems. While on a trip to Charleston to attend her father’s funeral, Nicole has an impromptu experience with adultery, which leaves her feeling guilty but also excited and rejuvenated. Another temptation arises closer to home, and she begins a full-fledged affair with a neighbor. Walter returns unexpectedly and finds Nicole and the terrified neighbor flagrante delicto.
Walter drives his frightened, bewildered wife down to the edge of the river and shoots her. He makes no attempt to cover up his crime and is sentenced to ninety-nine years in the Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex. His two children are left to grow up in a series of foster homes, finally to be adopted by a loving couple named Cartwright, whose name they assume. They are told nothing about the death of their mother or the fate of their father. In their young minds, Walter and Nicole are only vague memories of a dream.
In part 2, the narrative shifts abruptly to Frank Cartwright, while his father disappears altogether. Lewis is not afraid of losing reader involvement by shifting time, place, or point of view. In fact, the book contains many short chapters describing persons and incidents which have little or nothing to do with the principal narrative.
For example, in a chapter titled “Million-Dollar Bartender,” Lewis describes a couple named Harold and Yvette who win three million dollars in the New Jersey state lottery. These humble folk have no idea what to do with all this money. Yvette does a little shopping but finally realizes that there is little she really wants. Harold buys a fancy car and some sporting equipment he never uses. He is besieged by friends, neighbors, acquaintances, distant relatives, and complete strangers with requests for gifts and loans. One sinister stranger who knows about Harold’s good luck follows him to a secluded spot, kills him with a lead pipe, and dumps his body into the Passaic River after stripping him of wallet, rings, watch, and new alpaca coat. Although it is an interesting anecdote with something of a moral, there is no indication of what it might have to do with the stories of Walter and Frank. It seems like a short story or a sketch of a novel that was never completed. The same thing can be said about “Coyote,” a chapter in which a young man who owns a van gets involved in smuggling illegal immigrants across the Mexican border.
More puzzling is the partial transcription of a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, in...