There’s an interesting book in Jim Lewis’s The King is Dead. It’s about 150 pages long, and it centers on Walter Selby -- a good but flawed and fragile man who witnesses a tragedy, then goes on to commit one of his own. However, after Lewis shifts away from Walter’s story, the book insists on continuing for another 100 pages, at which point we wonder, “What became of that interesting man and the horrifying inner struggle he must be facing now?”
Unfortunately, that question isn’t answered until the end of the book, and, while the end seems fitting, by that point the viewpoint is that of Walter’s son, Frank, who, though interesting, doesn’t quite have the complexity of his father.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story does begin as the tale of Walter Selby, World War II veteran and rising politician. Walter, though he doesn’t learn it until later, is also part black – a very small part, but at a time when such a thing could dampen a career. Even before he learns of his ethnic makeup, Walter is haunted by a variety of demons. The greatest of these is perhaps his experience in the war, which included the death of a fellow soldier, a Cajun taken by many racist fellow soldiers to be black. Though Walter isn’t directly responsible for his death, the memory stays with him.
Walter has a wife, Nicole, whom he loves deeply but often leaves behind while he focuses on his career. We see this from both sides – Walter, trying to do what is required of him, and Nicole, getting understandably restless. Then Walter is witness to something horrible – which he feels he could have stopped, but probably couldn’t have – and returns home to find that problems with his marriage have escalated in ways he never expected. He snaps, does something vicious and permanent that he almost instantly regrets and goes to jail.
At this point, I would have liked to see the story follow Walter. To see how he lives with his crime from day to day. I imagine that it becomes part of him, a ball of remorse sitting heavy inside him. That’s an interesting story – a man, good and virtuous, except for one terrible deed.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, the story flips to Frank, Walter’s son, who was just a child when his father was arrested. Now he’s grown, an actor who doesn’t seem to work much. There’s some ill-examined subplot about a mysterious women recruiting him for a film, and some poignant but ultimately unnecessary flashback stuff about Frank’s teenage romance with a mentally ill woman. It’s not terrible, but Frank’s story is just less interesting than Walter’s. Why, I wonder, would Lewis drop a character we had already developed a relationship with to focus on a virtual stranger?
There are many good things about The King is Dead, but there could have been more.