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King Is Dead

King Is Dead

by Jim Lewis

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Returning a hero from the battlefields of World War II, Walter Selby settles into a charmed domestic life in Memphis. But in a few brief moments, Walter sees his life and his world fracture and split apart, driving him to commit a terrible crime.

Many years later, Frank Cartwright ponders his next move. His film career has left him wealthy but incomplete. When


Returning a hero from the battlefields of World War II, Walter Selby settles into a charmed domestic life in Memphis. But in a few brief moments, Walter sees his life and his world fracture and split apart, driving him to commit a terrible crime.

Many years later, Frank Cartwright ponders his next move. His film career has left him wealthy but incomplete. When a director approaches him with a script that has a riddle for a plot Frank is intrigued by its resonance. In his search for an answer to the riddle, Frank embarks on a journey that will lead him into a past he doesn’t remember.

Jim Lewis, acclaimed author of Why the Tree Loves the Ax, returns with a novel stunning in its originality and scope. And as he tells the stories of two men and the conflicts that shape them, he delivers a powerful portrait of America and the treacherous currents that run through it.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
There are books that seek to give ordinary life the status of myth, as if offering a shortcut to the peculiar immortality conferred on the straying heroines and vengeful heroes of the murder ballads. If this novel did only that -- if it declined to follow Walter Selby's son into the present -- it would be much less interesting. It accomplishment lies in reversing the mythmaking process, freeing the Selby family from the gothic enchantments of History and restoring them to human scale. — A.O. Scott
Publishers Weekly
Every act is fraught with significance in this intermittently powerful but overwrought novel, set between 1950s Tennessee and present-day New York. Like an American passion play, Lewis's story is one of sin and redemption, told in flowing, dramatic prose. Walter Selby is an aide to the governor of Tennessee; he works as hard at his behind-the-scenes politicking as he does in wooing his wife, the lovely Nicole. Their happy life together comes to an abrupt end on the day Walter resigns from his job after tragically botching a government eviction, then comes home to find his wife with another man. The terrible crime he commits separates him forever from his six-year-old son, Frank, and baby daughter, Gail. Years later, Frank, now a successful actor, is driven to investigate his parents' past after an encounter with an eccentric elderly director who tries to persuade him to take a role in a film, the plot of which stirs strange sentiments in him ("a young Prince... is newly appointed to the throne after the death of his father, and soon discovers evidence of a taint on the palace"). Frank's muddled journey takes him to Tennessee and then deep into his family's murky history. Lewis's luminous language serves him well in the early going; his descriptions of '50s-era Tennessee and of Walter and Nicole's passionate marriage are rich and convincingly detailed. But when the story turns to abstract musings, the top-heavy sentences slip into portentousness, and the choruses of "Frank, oh, Frank" and "Oh oh oh Frank" strike an almost comical note. Lewis (Sister; Why the Tree Loves the Ax) is a talented writer, but his overblown lyricism gets the better of this ambitious novel. (July 25) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The father of little Frank and Gail, undone when his wife commits adultery, kills her on the banks of a Tennessee river and then spends many years in prison. The children, raised and cherished by another couple, are not told of this tragedy. The adult Frank, now a movie star, is pressed to examine his origins when offered an acting role in an enigmatic film about fathers and sons. Set in the 1950s, long characterized as a placid era but here displayed as far more complex, Lewis's third novel (after his remarkable 1993 debut Sister and the well-received Why the Tree Loves the Ax) shimmers with ancient truths told with bold, poetic beauty. The author burnishes his themes of love, identity, and redemption in this remarkably affecting tale of two men who become open to each other in a revelatory moment. Fiction collections everywhere will benefit from this title, and librarians will want to keep track of Lewis's future work.-Barbara Conaty, Falls Church, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A legacy of instability and alienation plagues two generations in this ruthlessly compact third outing by Lewis (Why the Tree Loves the Ax, 1999, etc.). A tricky structure that involves leaps forward and backward in time and seemingly unrelated subplots eventually discloses connections between WWII hero and political functionary Walter Selby and his son Frank, a film actor whose burden of untold family secrets propels him into early retirement. The story's first half depicts Walter's infatuation with his eventual wife, beautiful, distractible Nicole Lattimore; his disillusioning tenure as aide to Tennessee's manipulative governor; and Walter's heartbroken discovery of Nicole's infidelity, after which he shoots her to death and is sent to prison. The second half portrays Frank as a foster child (who takes the surname of his "new" parents the Cartwrights) raised with his younger sister Gloria in ignorance of their family's past; a teenager obsessed with a seductive classmate (Kimmie Remington) on her way to becoming an irreversible paranoid schizophrenic; and a middle-aged divorced father whose buried energies are reawakened when aging film queen Lenore Riviere tempts him with a "riddling" story of a bastard prince's moral quandary involving his betrayed father and adulterous mother (which is, incidentally, the source of Lewis's title). There are also loosely related episodes featuring a murdered lottery winner and an itinerant Native American, and inexplicably, the full text of Casey Stengel's testimony before Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver's Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee. Lewis doesn't pull all these materials together, but does create some smashing effects in his dénouement, asFrank travels to his dying father's bedside seeking the answer to the "riddle" that embraces father and son alike: "Where does a man go, if he's done wrong?" The tale's circuitous, cryptic organization is daunting, but Lewis's crisp, forthright style and arresting character portraits lead toward a most satisfying payoff.
From the Publisher
"A ballad of murder and mythmaking. . . . Haunting." –The New York Times Book Review

“[An] eloquent meditation on the second half of the 20th century as reflected through the cracked prism of two flawed men.” —The Miami Herald

"Elegant and enigmatic. . . . Infused with Lewis's intelligence and empathy, The King is Dead is a sweeping tale of the century." –Esquire

“Marvelous and beautifully written. . . . The book creates a powerful narrative urgency as it approaches its end . . . and you find you have to force yourself to read more slowly, not wanting the experience to end.”–The Daily Telegraph (London)

The King is Dead takes the father-son conflict and deftly weaves it into a 20th-century American fable. . . . Lewis proves he can evoke intimate sadness within big stories. That’s the mark of real tragedy—and real art.” –The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Jim Lewis's sterling novel of politics, race, fidelity, and regret, is a model of literary economy . . . an epicworthy tale packed into a brisk 260 pages. . . . This is grand fiction." –Texas Monthly

"Genealogy counts for everything in Jim Lewis's absorbing diptych of self-discovery. . . . An effective examination of the search for truth in a divided family." –The Seattle Times

"The King is Dead is little less than a landmark, a moving-on outwards and upwards from midlife inertia, with all the attendant cries of release, towards something sad, illuminating, songful and shivering with life." –Time Out (London)

“[The King is Dead] does what novels should and so rarely do: encompass a great deal in a limited space, pass the inessential, and enlarge life.” –The New York Sun

"A beautifully sculpted narrative [of] political chicanery, domestic infidelity and murder. Magnificent!" –Independent on Sunday

"Like the classic Southern novelists (Faulkner, Warren, Percy) Lewis writes as though he means for you to enjoy it. . . . The King is Dead shows that Lewis has become a novelist to reckon with." –San Antonio Express-News

"A gripping novel that flashes over 50 years, exposing the way in which an instant can shatter a life." –The Times (London)

“A Faulknerian tale of crossed destines . . . masterfully told. . . . Compellingly readable and brilliant in design and style. . . . Startling and memorable. . . . Jim Lewis is a writer to relish.” –Memphis Commercial Appeal

“Jim Lewis is a writer of the same heavyweight stature as Franzen and David Foster Wallace. There is much to admire in how Lewis narrates his melancholy saga of love, betrayal, shame, loss, regret and disappointment across the generations. . . . A short review can barely do justice to the artfulness and deep intelligence of this novel. Above all, Jim Lewis persuades you that a single reading of his work is not enough.” –Scotland on Sunday

"The King is Dead is a marvelous book, and with it, Jim Lewis has come into full possession of a powerful literary voice whose main qualities are the hardest to come by: integrity, empathy, narrative allure, and wisdom. Lewis's moral intelligence purges his prose of every false move and cheap convention, burrowing ever closer to the truths about the pull and stain of heritage. This is a book of impeccable artistry." –Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex

"A refreshing throwback to the old baroque school of Southern writing, but with the difference that the fatalism, to which novelists like Faulkner and even Cormac McCarthy were as addicted as they were to whiskey, is absent." –The Austin Chronicle

"Lewis writes near faultless, witty, warm prose and his diverse characters spring to life. The King is Dead is a novel with both ideas and heart. Long live the king." –Irish Independent

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries
Sold by:
Random House
File size:
463 KB

Read an Excerpt


Nicole’s hand was warm and damp. Three-thirty had come, the Governor hadn’t called—nor had anyone else—and Walter Selby had gone home lively to his wife, happy to have some time to spare before dinner. He was still thinking about work, running phrases for a speech through his head, but he wasn’t thinking hard. It was an afternoon toward the end of May, and he was enjoying the last hours of sunlight, along the street, under the shade of the pin oaks. To see his own house in the late sunlight of a spring weekday was a rare pleasure, and not one he wanted to squander.

To see his own wife. He parked in the driveway and emerged into a noiseless world; some money had bought that quiet, that still and green street. He could hear his steps on the walk, the hiss of the spring on the hinge of the outer door. He had his key in the lock and he paused to prolong the homecoming moment. These were instants he liked to savor: the border, and just across the border, where he would call Nicole’s name and then wait for her to answer, wait and wonder where her voice would come from, where she would appear. In the years since they’d married the process had taken on a formal quality, and the closer it came to ritual the more it delighted him; the smell of his own house delighted him, the weather dampening, the day-late hour, the light lengthening across the lawn, his anticipation lengthening along the front hall.

It was a Wednesday, and the Governor was back in Nashville, appearing at a hearing in the State Senate about advisory appointments; he would be strolling amiably down the aisle right about now, dressed in his thin grey penitent suit, a half smile on his face while he shook alike the hands of men he enjoyed and men he despised. Then he would take to his table, sit down slowly, and drop a tablet of bicarb into his water glass to distract his interlocutors while he composed himself. The water would remain fizzing at his elbow until his remarks were done, at which point he would stand up, take the glass and down its contents quickly, and then stroll out of the room again, smiling again, shaking hands, whispering.

The Selby house was quiet. Frank and the baby would be in the park with Josephine, the nanny they’d hired soon after Gail was born. This was Nicole’s own time, the part of the day when she could do what she liked, and Walter seldom interrupted her with so much as a phone call. There was some mystery in every marriage, or else there was no material left for later intimacies—for the hours after the children had been put to bed, to save and to spend, repairing the ragged forward edge of their affairs. Away from others, away from work, toward the night.

He stepped inside and called her name. There was a long silence, and he began to wonder if she was in the backyard, so he headed through the house. Along the way the light stepped down into the darkness of the living room where the blinds were drawn, up a notch in the rear hallway, and then up again into the illumination of the kitchen, which, with its south-facing windows, its Formica and its reflecting metal, was as bright as a room could be. He stood there, blinking, then he turned and started back into the living room and saw her standing in the doorway, with a look on her face that he couldn’t quite describe: surprise, the satisfactions of a day, and worry or a question. She smiled a little. You’re home early, she said.

Short day, he said. She was wearing black slacks and a simple blue sweater; her hair was down, and once again he was struck. The man who first burned clay to make china: Wasn’t this what he was after? This face, in age? He put his briefcase down on the kitchen table and crossed the room to her, taking her shoulders in his hands. How beautiful, even on a bright, unglamorous afternoon; her cheeks were slightly flushed, her pupils were dilated, her lower lip hung slightly on the flesh. He hugged her; her nipples, half hard, pressed against the upper edge of his abdomen. He stepped back and looked at her from arm’s distance.

What is it? she asked.

I was just about to ask you the same thing, he said. What is it?

Nothing. What do you mean?

He shrugged. Nothing, he said. He drew her toward him again, leaned down and kissed her cheek. Neither of them smiled. He reached for her hand, a gesture he had made a thousand times before: he loved the feel of her palm against his—soft, cool, and dry—how her fingers would begin to tremble when the contact, plain at first, quickly grew awkward and unnatural, and then settled again into something comfortable, as each of them abandoned the tiny flickers of will that made their fingers clench, and peace was achieved for two. It was very much like marriage itself, he thought, where some small part of one’s self was deliberately, happily, allowed to die. But that afternoon her palm was damp—slightly hot, and slightly damp—and small and subtle though the difference was, it bothered him. He felt a clinging sensation, moist and cloying; it was like putting on a still-wet bathing suit, and he disengaged his hand from hers and rubbed his palm, slowly and almost unconsciously, against the hip of his trousers, and then bade her good-bye for a time so he could shake off the office day.

He was upstairs changing into home clothes when the children came back from the park; he could hear them burst through the door, hear Frank boasting loudly about a game. I hid in the sandbox! he said. All the way down and in, and they couldn’t find me, no matter how hard they tried. Not even Josephine could find me, could you?

No, I couldn’t, said Josephine. And I looked and I looked.

And then finally I had to come out and show them where I was, or they never would have found me, ever. —Daddy!

Walter was coming down the stairs, watching the tableau below him: Nicole had taken the baby from Josephine; Frank was strug- gling to get out of his muddy clothes. In the hallway? said his father. We don’t get undressed in the hallway. Frank. Come on, now. Son. Frank.

The boy said, No one could find me!

I heard, said Walter. Now go around back to the porch and take your clothes off there. And then you can tell me all about it.

Later, Walter drove Josephine home to South Memphis, his big brand-new blue Impala gliding down the streets, passing into the colored part of town, with its neat little houses set a short way back from broken sidewalks. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Someday, he thought. And when Someday comes, what happens? He knew very little about the woman on the seat beside him, now holding her glossy black purse tight against her middle. She was good to his children; she had several of her own, all of them now grown. She had a husband at home who worked hard for a paycheck that always seemed to fall a little bit short of the week’s expenses. How big was their bed? And how well did they sleep? No better, no worse, this year or a hundred years ago; because bed was where the world reached its level, the one place where all the efforts of the State—his efforts, his State—came to nothing. This Negro woman beside him, the room she was traveling toward, the man she would meet there: When the blinds were drawn and the lights turned off, and she lay down beside her husband, the lying-down would exist in its long kindness, no matter what was done to help them or to cause them to die. Then was all work futile? He pulled up to the curb before her house and turned in his seat to face her. How are you doing? he asked.

Well, Frankie’s reading better . . .

No, I mean you. How are you and your husband doing? He couldn’t remember the man’s name.

Josephine shrugged. We’re getting by, she said . . . And she hesitated, waiting for him to say something else, then looked over and found him gazing at her, his expression split between the half smile on his lips and the darkness in his eyes. She didn’t want to know what he was thinking, so she made her good-bye and stepped out of the car, leaving Walter to nod and say, See you tomorrow, and pull away from the curb.

Promptly at seven, the family Selby sat down to dinner, but Walter was distracted, hardly listening to Frank as he recounted his boy’s day. Throughout the hour he could feel the sensation of Nicole’s nipples against his chest. Well, she wasn’t feeding Gail anymore, was she? Was it a thought, then, that had gotten into her and then started out again? He could feel her hand on his; the sensation had somehow stuck to his palm and wouldn’t dissipate. He felt it, beneath the skin and below the veins, behind the bones, between the nerves.

Little Frank didn’t want his food, he said something about the food, he complained about the food. I don’t like this. Mommy? he said, his gaze wandering off to one side. He really needed to learn to look people in the eye, thought Walter, if he was ever going to get the things he wanted. —Can I have something else? said Frank. Please? Can I? Please, please, please? He pushed his rice around his plate a little bit with his fork and then slumped down in his chair, his mouth set against any obstacle to his appetite.

Nicole was talking to the boy, but Walter wasn’t listening; he was trying to follow a rustling in the rearmost hollow of his mind. She looked at him with wide eyes. Could you help me? she said. Could you help me with this?

Frank, do what your mother says, said Walter gently, looking at her rather than the boy. She returned his gaze with a questioning and concerned expression, and the boy was looking at both of them. Gail began to cry and Nicole reached for her, so suddenly and swiftly that the baby screamed. Oh, now . . . I’m sorry, she said softly, almost singing. I’m sorry, don’t cry. —And just like that the baby stopped. Outside, it had begun to rain, the drops picking up where the baby’s tears had left off. Everybody could hear it, each of them in the room, everyone in the city. There was no thunder, no sound of wind, only the piano splash of the rain and the smell of wet leaves. Can I have a hot dog? said Frank.

Shhh, said Walter. And then pointlessly: It’s raining.

Nicole was still for a moment, and then she spoke to the boy in a whisper. Only if you promise to eat it all. All of it, she said. Frank promised, so she rose from the table and went to the kitchen. Walter watched her go.

After the meal he helped her with the washing up while the boy sat with his little sister; they stood side by side before the sink, but aside from an occasional accidental brush against her hip, or a mutual grazing of fingertips as he handed her a plate, he didn’t touch her. He didn’t watch her undress that night before bed, or cup her shoulder and smell her neck as she fell asleep beside him, slowly passing him into dreams. He lay awake for a long time, his arms stretched behind his head, while he pondered the prodigal inching of her blood, and the damp heat of her hand.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Jim Lewis was raised in New York and London. He has taught philosophy and literature at Columbia University, and has written about both politics and the arts for many magazines, journals, and museum catalogs. He has published two previous novels, Sister and Why the Tree Loves the Ax; and written a screenplay, based on a short story of his own, for Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios. He lives in Austin, Texas.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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