Ed King

Ed King

4.2 15
by David Guterson
     
 

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A sweeping, propulsive, darkly humorous new novel by the best-selling author of Snow Falling on Cedars: a story of destiny, desire, and destruction that reimagines Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex for our own era.
 
In Seattle in 1962, Walter Cousins, a mild-mannered actuary—“a guy who weighs risk for a living”—takesSee more details below

Overview

A sweeping, propulsive, darkly humorous new novel by the best-selling author of Snow Falling on Cedars: a story of destiny, desire, and destruction that reimagines Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex for our own era.
 
In Seattle in 1962, Walter Cousins, a mild-mannered actuary—“a guy who weighs risk for a living”—takes a risk of his own, and makes the biggest error of his life. He sleeps with Diane Burroughs, the sexy, not-quite-legal British au pair who’s taking care of his children for the summer. Diane gets pregnant and leaves their baby on a doorstep, but not before turning the tables on Walter and setting in motion a tragedy of epic proportions. Their orphaned child, adopted by an adoring family and named Edward Aaron King, grows up to become a billionaire Internet tycoon and an international celebrity—the “King of Search”—who unknowingly, but inexorably, hurtles through life toward a fate he may have no power to shape.
 
An instant classic—David Guterson’s most daring and dazzling novel yet—that brings a contemporary urgency to one of the greatest stories of all time.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Guterson (The Other) uses key elements of Oedipus the King as scaffolding for a snarky comedy skewering contemporary values. In 1962, a 34-year-old actuary seduces an underage au pair, producing a child who, abandoned, is adopted by the prosperous King family and named Edward. But Ed is not a king in name only; he grows into the "king of search," a man in the mold of Jobs or Gates running a company/kingdom akin to Google called Pythia. Guterson fans may be surprised at his lack of sympathy this time out; his characters are superficially realized and relentlessly ridiculed. The cure for the guilt Ed feels over causing a stranger's death? The right antidepressant. Ed has copious encounters with older girls, and then older women, a recurring theme Guterson employs partly for fun, but mostly to trumpet his point: Ed's not only Sophocles' Oedipus but also Freud's, thanks to an oversized (and oversimplified) Oedipus complex. But Guterson gives the myth neither new perspective nor fresh twist, and the ancient drama doesn't illuminate the present. The novel's worldview doesn't allow for heroes or gods, and treats fate as if it were mere coincidence. But the story is propelled by irony, much of it delightful, and if we're able to mock ourselves, we can't be all bad. Can we? (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“Brilliant. . . . Transcendently dark and dazzling.” —The Seattle Times  

“The ranks of dependably original novelists, who create radically new worlds again and again, then delight in tricking them up, are thin, but would certainly include Mitchell, Nicholson Baker, Thomas Pynchon, Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem. . . . This is the club where high concept is born—and with the publication of David Guterson’s Ed King it has a surprising new member.” —The New York Times

“Guterson succeeds in recasting one of literature’s most haunted and vaunted tales as a plausible page-turner. . . . Compelling.” —USA Today
 
“Old stories survived millennia because they tell us about the human condition. Brave writers like Guterson can renew them.” —The Oregonian
 
“Daring. . . . Guterson keeps [Ed King] winningly good-natured and almost farcical, all the better to teach timeless lessons about hubris, ambition, and the consequences of long-ago sins.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“Guterson takes the reader through a rollicking half-century of American hubris and gluttony.” —The New York Times
 
“A tragic and darkly funny modern myth in an omnipotent, wry voice reminiscent of Philip Roth. . . . The Greeks weren’t afraid to take on God, and neither is Guterson. . . . A master storyteller.” —Bookreporter.com
 
“Guterson has managed to infuse this novel with feelings of freshness, relevance and even believability that are sure to delight 21st-century readers. A special pleasure will be experienced by those who can appreciate how the old elements have been modernized. Oedipus may not have been Guterson’s to begin with, but by the end, readers will have no doubts that Ed King is a creation entirely his own.” —BookPage
 
“[Guterson’s] portraits of humanity are real, and exceedingly enjoyable to read.” —San Francisco Chronicle
 
“A great story and a riveting read.” —The Daily Mail (London)
 
“Sharply written.” —The Guardian (London)
 
“David Guterson . . . retells one of the oldest stories we know in a way that makes you hang on every twist and turn. . . . A largely entertaining book that should add to Guterson’s already glittering reputation.” —The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA)
 
 “[Ed King] has original characters, a race to discover the truth as gripping as the denouement of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and some insights into human relationships so sharp that they make a reader cringe.” —The New York Journal of Books

Library Journal
Walter Cousins has an institutionalized wife, two kids, and a job to hold down, but he still manages to hire, seduce, and impregnate a British nanny, Diane Burroughs, setting in motion a tale of mythic proportions. Refusing to abort, the wily Diane gives birth to a baby boy, abandons him, and proceeds to shake down Walter for a monthly check that starts her on the road to entrepreneurship. Diane's baby is adopted by Dr. and Mrs. Dan King, who, after forging a birth certificate, perch their Eddie on a pedestal so high he can't help but fall. Walter becomes a serial philanderer, Ed builds an Internet empire, and readers watch in horror as three disparate lives hurtle toward their fate in this uneven reimagining of the Oedipus myth. VERDICT While Diane's character practically jumps off the page, the titular Ed King comes across as a cardboard cutout. What commences as a sophisticated, Franzen-like look at the foibles and dashed dreams of the American family devolves into a melodrama that just doesn't feel authentic. Still, Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars; Our Lady of the Forest) has a reputation for handling hot-button topics, and his fans will likely clamor for this. [See Prepub Alert, 4/4/11.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Myers, FL
Kirkus Reviews
From Guterson (The Other, 2008, etc.), a retelling of Oedipus Rex for the information age.

In 1962 Seattle, actuary Walter Cousins hires a British exchange student as au pair to help with his children while his wife recovers from her nervous breakdown. Soon he and Diane, a 15-year-old sociopath, are sleeping together. She becomes pregnant and disappears with the baby. He spends the rest of his life sending her child support, unaware she has abandoned the infant on a doorstep in a prosperous neighborhood. A random couple finds the foundling and turns him over to an agency that arranges an adoption. Alice and Dan King never disclose to their son Ed that he is adopted while raising him in their loving reformed Jewish household. During a rebellious period in his teens, Ed gets into a highway fracas with a stranger. Ed leaves the scene of the resulting fatal accident emotionally shaken but is never caught. After a brief bout of debilitating guilt, Ed graduates high school, where an affair with his teacher gives him a predilection for older women. As a math genius in college, Ed focuses on the "nascent field of search" while his equally brilliant but geekier younger brother Simon (the Kings' biological son from an unexpected post-adoption pregnancy) becomes a success at computer gaming. Meanwhile Diane has recreated herself several times, moving up and down the socio-economic ladder, scamming and being scammed. She's 42 but looks 32 when she and Ed meet at an exhibit on probability that coincidentally she first attended with Walter. Their mutual attraction is immediate. Soon Ed's company has grown bigger than Google. But in 2017, his experiments into artificial intelligence and genome mapping lead him to unsettling discoveries about his past as well as his present.

More comedy than tragedy: It's hard to garner much sympathy for characters whose lives are determined by their own selfish choices as much as by fate, but Guterson maintains an enjoyably sharp edge to his humor that will keep readers hooked.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307700421
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/18/2011
Series:
Vintage Contemporaries
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
399,855
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

In 1962, Walter Cousins made the biggest mistake of his life: he slept with the au pair for a month. She was an English exchange student named Diane Burroughs, and he was an actuary at Piersall-Crane, Inc., whose wife, that summer, had suffered a nervous breakdown. Diane had been in his house for less than a week—mothering his kids, cleaning, making meals—when he noticed a new word intruding on his assessment of her. ‘Here I am,’ thought Walter, ‘an actuary, a guy who weighs risk for a living, and now, because I’m infatuated with the wrong person—because I’m smitten by an 18 year old--I’m using the word fate.’

Diane had been peddled to Walter, by an office temp familiar with her current host family, as “a nice girl from the U.K. who needs work to extend her visa.” Walter, who at 34 had never left North America, thought “au pair” sounded pretentious—“you mean  babysitter,” he told the temp. Immediately he regretted his provincialism, so he added, “I could also go with nanny.” The temp’s comeback was sharp. She was younger than he was, wore formidable boots, and had an air of immunity to an office flirt like Walter. “No, definitely, it’s au pair,” she said. “She’s here on a visa. She’s from out of the country. If you take her on, you become her host father, and you give her an allowance for whatever she does for you—child care or housework or whatever.”

Au pair it was, then. Walter took down the phone number, chatted with Diane’s host mother, then spoke to the girl herself. In no position to be picky--he needed help yesterday—he hired Diane on the spot.

“This is hard to explain,” he’d explained, “but my wife’s . . . hospitalized.”

Back came the sort of English inflections it was difficult for him not to be charmed by. “In hospital,” she said. “I do hope it isn’t serious.”

“No,” he said, “but meanwhile there’s the kids. Four and three. Barry and Tina. Out of diapers, but still, they’re tricky to corral.”

“Then allow me just a smidgeon of shameful self-promotion. What you need is an English au pair, sir, adept with a rodeo rope.”

“I think you mean lasso.”

“A lass with a lasso, then, for when they’re mucking about starkers.”

“That’s what I need. Something like that.”

“Well,” said Diane. “I’m your girl.”

This flagrantly forward use of language—neat, cunning phrases and bald innuendo--from the mouth of a high school girl jockeying for work was new in his American ear. Diane sounded quick-witted and cheerfully combative--qualities he’d always found winning and attractive--as in her screed on the U.S. State Department and its byzantine visa requirements. “I’m still keen to go to college in America,” she told him, “but at the moment I’m furious with your Seattle passport office. They’re trying, actually, to throw me out.”

The next Sunday, with his kids complaining in the back seat of his Lincoln Premiere, Walter went to escort this girl from her host family’s large Victorian near Seward Park to his brick-veneered ranch house in Greenwood. He hoped Diane wouldn’t be too disappointed when she discovered she was moving down in the world, and as he parked on the cobbles fronting the Victorian, he imagined himself apologizing for having nothing to offer in the way of gilding or ambience. Seward Park, after all, dripped old money and featured lake views; Greenwood, by contrast, was dowdy and decrepit, with summer-arid grass patches and sagging gutters. Walter, of course, would have liked a better neighborhood, but his was a notoriously mid-wage profession, a fact he hadn’t reckoned with at Iowa State but was reckoning with now, too late. Not that it was bad at Piersall-Crane, where he held down a cubicle by a window. Walter took certain consolations there—in collegial hobnobbing, in crisply dressed women, and in the higher realms of actuarial science, which for him had innate satisfactions. That the predictive power of numbers on a large scale could be brought to bear on future events—for Walter, that was like an esoteric secret and, as he put it to himself, sort of mystical. Okay, it wasn’t art or philosophy, but it was still deep, which almost no one understood.

When he first saw her, the au pair struck him, when he saw her first, as nowhere close to legal. She looked like a child, unfinished, a sprout--no hairdo or make-up, no jewelry, unadorned-- she looked like the younger sister of a girl he’d dated long ago, in high school. Her abraded, leather suitcases, strapped and buckled, and riddled with tarnished rivets that looked shot from a machine gun—a matched set, though one was a junior version of the other--waited for Walter on the porch. Propped on the clasp of the larger one was a transistor radio with an ivory plastic strap and ivory knobs. Feeling like a porter—but also like a honeymooner--he hauled her over-stuffed luggage to the Lincoln’s trunk while Diane, in dungarees, doled out last minute hugs and delivered farewells in her disarming accent. “Lovely,” he heard her say. “Perfect.” Then he held the car door wide for her, and when she turned, brightly, to greet his kids in the back seat, he looked, surreptitiously, down the gap that opened between the rear waist of her dungarees and the nether regions of her back, at the shadow there, the practical white undies, and the reddish down along her tailbone.

It was so—you never knew; you couldn’t predict. Not even an actuary knew what would happen—there were broad trends, of course, he could express in tables, but individual destinies were always nebulous. In Walter’s case, this meant his wife was out of the house while he, against the odds, on a fair summer morning, was collecting up this enticing piece of luck to install in the bedroom across the hall from his. How had this dangerous but fortuitous thing happened? What had he done to deserve this risk? With these questions and her underwear in mind, he chose, as his route, Lake Washington Boulevard; there might be, he sensed, an intangible benefit in such a sinuous and scenic drive. He also decided to take all 3 kids to the booming, newly opened Seattle World’s Fair, because in its context he could function like a grandee, bestowing cotton candy and largesse, before introducing Diane to Greenwood. With this plan in mind, he motored past pleasure craft and magnificent trees while, on the passenger side, twined hands in her lap, Diane answered questions, ingratiated herself skillfully and easily to his offspring, and brought to his mind the pert and perfect Hayley Mills, that upbeat, full-lipped, earnest starlet who, on the cover of Life recently, in a sailor outfit, had puckered, naughtily, for a kiss. In fact, as Diane chatted up his progeny in lilting tones but with a teasing irony that, over their heads, might be aimed at him, she was a drop-dead ringer for the 16 year old Disney darling who’d been in newspapers and magazines lately for turning down the lead role in Lolita. A morsel, a nymphet, in frilly socks and Keds, a junior high date—the beach walk, for sodas—and at the kind of youthful sexual crest that even a 4 year old could sense. Sure enough, Barry, with a 4 year old’s primal yearning, leaned over the front seat and settled his head on his hands, like a cherub posed for a Christmas portrait, the better to bask in Diane’s nubile aura. Flicking 2 fingers against his bony shoulder, the object of his son’s newly stirred affections chirped, as if on cue, “I love your name, Barry, really I do. And Tina,” she added, “is so lovely.” After that, she shot Walter a look, and winked as though he, her new employer, was instead her intimate chauffeur.

“You truly have great names,” he tossed out.

“Tiptop, the best, brilliant.”

“Barry and Tina: it’s genius, it’s beautiful.”

Diane, and then Walter, laughed.

And she laughed an hour later—the same truncated notes, issued through her nose and throat--when, on the mammothly rising Space Wheel, they all rocked precariously in the apex tub, 90 feet above the mania of the fair grounds. She laughed because, taking hold of the lap bar, he’d muscled them into rocking harder while Tina put up conflicted resistance (“Daddy!”) and Barry applied a grit-filled assist. “Beastly!” hissed Diane, pulling Tina toward her. “Never mind such recklessness, love--he’s only toying with your dear, precious life.”

“But Tina absolutely adores danger. Don’t you,‘luv’.”

To this his daughter had a one word reply, delivered while clutching the au pair’s stellar thighs: “Diane.”

On the fairgrounds, Walter followed Diane like a dog, so he could admire how she wore those dungarees. There were a lot of bare-armed dresses on the midway, and peppermint tops, and circus stripes, but nothing that could beat Diane in dungarees. Nothing could beat Diane’s tilting ponytail when she lifted her chin to pack in wads of cotton candy; nothing could beat her in the Fine Arts Pavilion with her lovely, little hands at the small of her back, leaning toward a painting called “Oedipus and the Sphinx.” Barry stood beside her with his head on her hip, and Walter stood alongside with Tina in his arms. The odd and slightly uncomfortable thing was that Oedipus had been painted monumentally naked--two spears, points down, beside one foot--while the Sphinx, half in darkness, winged and severe, pointed her bare breasts, from startling close range, at his face. “Ace,” said Diane, examining it. “I must say I like that running fellow in the corner. He’s quite active—he fixes Oedipus to the canvas. It’s arresting, so to speak, wouldn’t you say?”

Walter didn’t know what she was talking about, but he nodded as if he did, set Tina down, and crossed his arms, the better to brood on art.

“Look how he’s brushed in the shadows of the cave,” Diane said. “Look how the sun plays in those rocks, lower left.”

Did he read her correctly? Was he getting her signals? Because it seemed to Walter she was skirting the obvious—the nudity two feet in front of their faces--so as to give them both a chance to linger. She seemed, at the moment--if he wasn’t mistaken--a prick tease of the precocious teen brand. He was confident that the point she meant for him to take was, as long as neither of us mention nudity, we can go on standing here, looking at pornography together.

“Personally, for me, it’s the blue sky,” he said. “That amazing blue sky in the background.”

Again her convulsive laugh, as at an inside joke, which he was now laboring to solicit at every turn.

They went to examine The World of Tomorrow. The line for this exhibit was long and hot, but eventually they found themselves inside the Bubbleator with 150 other agitated fair-goers, ascending, as if inside a soap bubble, toward “The Threshold and the Threat.” “The Threshold and the Threat” had been highlighted in press reports as a thought-provoking and instructional tour-de-force--Walter thought that sounded good for the kids--and was billed in the fair’s extensive guide as, “a 21-minute tour of the future.” Yet after a half minute of ominously slow rising to a soundtrack called—Walter knew this from the guide—“Man in Space With Sounds,” the Bubbleator arrived not in the future but underneath a strangely lit semblance of the night sky. Stars and planets were projected onto distorted cubes, or on something like magnified cells in a beehive. What was this anyway? Why had they been lifted to this surreal destination? Tina clung anxiously to his pant leg, and Barry looked frightened and aghast. In contrast, the new au pair only stretched her back, pointing her girlish breasts at the faux heavens. Then she dropped them, and they huddled together like an abducted family in the bowels of a B movie spaceship. Everyone had to endure more “Man in Space With Sounds”—alarms, theramin wails, inharmonious strings and brass, much of it familiar to Walter as the sort of thing that backed Vincent Price—until, cast in celluloid on the weirdly curving cubes, a frightened family crouched in a fallout shelter. This was too much for Tina, who covered her eyes. Walter wondered who at the World’s Fair had given the green light to “The Threshold and the Threat,” because whatever else it was—beside some pointyheaded goofball’s dark view of the future--it was also, in his view, wrong. Subliminal, demonic, scarring, you name it, but best summed up as wrong. ‘We should have been told before we got in line,’ he thought angrily. ‘Somebody should have warned us.’

And now, on the cubes, came one image atop another, kaleidoscopic, fleeting, discombobulating, disassociative—jetports, monorails, the Acropolis, a mushroom cloud--before, again, that pathetic, cellared family, this time with JFK exhorting them, and all other Americans, in his Bostonian brahmin brogue, to build a brighter world through technology.

The hallucinatory journey through apocalypse ended, and Diane said only, “That was fab.”

“That was a nightmare,” countered Walter. “Let’s get out of here.”

Outside he felt reassured by the real world, and so, clearly, did his kids. They all breathed happily the June carnival air, pregnant as it was with cooking grease and promise. In the Food Pavilion it was Orange Juliuses all around--the kids and Diane sucking away at jointed, double straws, while he, having bolted his Extra Large, ate a corn dog. Just let it happen, he told himself, when Tina implored him for a Belgian waffle—be carefree and magnanimous, stay with the pointed humor (“How about the Girls of the Galaxy Exhibit?”), and tease them all often, with easy tenderness. There were solid points to be earned, he felt sure, by riding the fine line between paternalism and friendship, between daddy and a nice guy with cash.

“Girls of the Galaxy?” Diane asked.

“According to the fair guide they pose naked for Polaroids.”

“Including Earth girls?”

“Especially Earth girls.”

“That wouldn’t do in England. Not at all.”

Walter shrugged as if Girls of the Galaxy was just old hat in his world. “My, what do you call it, bonny lass,” he said, “you’re not in England anymore.” Diane separated her lips from her straws. “‘Bonny’s’ Scottish,” she said, looking into her drink. “In England, you might try ‘stunning’.”

“Stunning, then.”

“Or ‘comely’ would do—I would accept that.”

They moved along until the kids got tired and the lines for the bathrooms too frustrating. It was time to go home but, because he wanted to—it was the only thing he was really interested in at the fair—they visited The World of Science building and its Probability Exhibit. Here, in a glass box, thousands of pennies dropped mechanically down a chute and were shunted thereafter past equidistant dividers so as to demonstrate the inexorability of a bell curve. As the pennies fell in essential randomness, they inevitably built up a standard normal distribution (“A Gaussian distribution,” he told the kids and Diane), which never varied and was a fixed law of nature; the pennies made a perfectly symmetrical hill, the formation of which could be relied on. He admired this so much he got effusive about it and explained, to Diane, what a bell-curve was, and in language he hoped didn’t sound too actuarial delineated the “central limit theorem” associated with what they were witnessing. “Put it this way,” he said, moving closer to her. “The sum of variables at work among those pennies follows a unique attractor distribution.”

“How interesting,” she shot back, mirthful at his expense, and mimicking his enthusiasm while flipping her ponytail absentmindedly. “An attractor distribution.” They were now 6 hours into their relationship, and already, it was more than he could take.

They were now six hours into their relationship, and already it was more than he could take.


From the Hardcover edition.

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