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Our American King
     

Our American King

5.0 2
by David Lozell Martin
 

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When America fell, she fell hard. Now chaos and calamity fill the vacuum left by a collapsing federal government. The strong and the armed prey on the law-abiding. Only the wealthiest Americans, who have bought up and seized every available commodity, get by unscathed. Protected by the United States Army and their own hired guards, the rich have made their deals.

Overview

When America fell, she fell hard. Now chaos and calamity fill the vacuum left by a collapsing federal government. The strong and the armed prey on the law-abiding. Only the wealthiest Americans, who have bought up and seized every available commodity, get by unscathed. Protected by the United States Army and their own hired guards, the rich have made their deals.

But no one is making deals on behalf of the Americans who have-not. John and Mary, a long-married couple, are starving to death in a suburb of Washington, D.C. In the delirium of starvation, John becomes convinced that an American king has risen up — benevolent, uncorrupted, and able to restore faith and prosperity to the nation. Mary walks with her husband into the District of Columbia to see if there's any truth to this madness of an American king.

At the fence bordering the White House, which has been abandoned, overrun, and destroyed, John and Mary find a man who is hanging dead politicians "the way they spoke their words," upside down and backwards. John convinces this man, Tazza, that he can be king and that the people of America will find as much strength and goodness in serving a king as they did in practicing a democracy.

Charismatic, royal, and alpha, Tazza is adored by the American people. He converts marauders to his cause, organizes scavengers to feed the hungry, and seems destined to establish a beloved and benevolent American monarchy. But Tazza cannot escape the inevitability of history, and when the federal government returns, a war ensues that sweeps across America and lasts for decades.

In this conflict between forms of government, in a people's fight for survival, Our American King unearths massive forces and powerful truths and challenges readers with provocative questions: If a calamity destroyed the American government, who among us would survive? Who would die from weakness and fear? What kind of leaders would emerge?

In vintage Martin style, Our American King grabs the reader on page one and never lets go. This is a journey by turns dire and thrilling, authoritative and mythical, heartbreaking and magical. For decades now, David Lozell Martin's novels, including cult favorites Lie to Me and The Crying Heart Tattoo, have set the bar for powerful and eccentric thrillers. This new one is his most powerful yet.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

At the start of Martin's compelling postapocalyptic novel, which reads like The Roadas told by the crusty old woman from Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Mary and her husband, John, perch precariously in a tree while a huge, corpse-eating pig waits below. Flashback a few decades: Mary and John are starving in suburban Maryland outside Washington, D.C., after a disaster known as "the calamity" destroyed much of the country's infrastructure. The top .1% of America's richest citizens have bought up all the commodities and withdrawn to enclaves guarded by hired thugs. After a man known as Tazza emerges as a strong local leader, John declares him king. Martin (The Crying Heart Tattoo) charts Tazza's self-sustaining kingdom from its early bucolic beginnings to its final bloody battles against rapacious Canadians hired by a resurgent American government bent on subduing this upstart leader. Filled with action, romance and terrific characters, this intelligent cautionary tale deserves a wide readership. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Martin's 12th novel (Facing Rushmore, 2005, etc.) tracks the exploits of a self-proclaimed king and his followers in a post-apocalyptic America. Mary and husband John are up a tree, their sanctuary from a monstrous feral pig. Welcome to America after the "calamity," brought on by the disappearance of oil and the collapse of banks. Mary and John used to have it good in the Washington suburbs; poet John was also a professor. Now half the population is dead from starvation; marauding bands terrify the survivors; and the rich have withdrawn to heavily guarded enclaves. Mary is a 42-year-old Lakota Indian; the older John is Irish-American. They have only survived by giving everything away. But wait! John dreams of a king who will save them all, and the skeletal couple walk to Washington to find him. It doesn't take long. John spots him, mobbed by admirers, stringing up dead politicians outside the White House. He has achieved local fame by liberating warehouses and organizing food-distribution networks. His name is Tazza, and with his green eyes and swarthy skin, he's a hunk. John, teeming with ideas, becomes his adviser, nudging him toward kingship; when the unarmed Tazza confronts and then enlists the most vicious marauders as his guards, that's it, he's king. Mary, breaking her blood pledge to John that she would never cheat on him, becomes Tazza's lover and gives birth to David, who will be raised as the future king. Then-surprise-U.S. Army tanks appear on the streets. Who's in charge? We never find out, for this is a novel of surfaces. Martin plays with plot twists and then moves on. After losing many supporters to the tanks, Tazza concedes defeat and begins a trek westward, turning fromnonviolence to brutal reprisals against nonbelievers in his royal mission. Yet through it all Tazza is dull and synthetic, the hole at the heart of the novel. Covering well-trodden ground, Martin's attempts at novelty (a king as leader, Canadians as our worst enemies) seem merely capricious.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780743267328
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
12/30/2008
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

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Read an Excerpt

8

We walked a biking, hiking path between the river and the parkway. No one is about. The Potomac flows on our right without a burden of boats and, to our left, the parkway's pavement is empty of cars. America had run out of oil, the remaining gasoline confiscated and stored underground by the Federal government or in depots guarded by mercenaries in the pay of rich Americans.

Near the path, everything is grown up. Fallen limbs stay where they have fallen. Here and there are wrecked cars. A big Greyhound bus looks as if it had been used as living quarters, trash all around and clotheslines to nearby trees. But the bus is empty now. John and I walk.

I worry what'll happen if we encounter Patagonians. Even with nothing to steal, we're vulnerable. They might kill us for sport. Or cut off our arms. And all without speaking a word.

"We'll walk up to Memorial Bridge and cross there," John says. I think the boatman's unexpected enthusiasm for the idea of an American king has knocked John off balance, making him wonder if he's stumbled onto something truly magical.

I eat from Boatman's bag, offering portions to John who is deep in a calculation of possibilities. I don't know how the idea of a king can be bigger than baloney and cheese, but John clearly is distracted.

We're losing the day. Although I've finished Boatman's food, still I'm running out of energy. "Can we stop for the night?"

John looks at me as if he'd forgotten I was along.

"Stop? Yes," he says. "We don't want to go into the District at night. Let's sleep by those trees."

Here we are, two Americans of the modern era, stopping to sleep by trees the way my migrating ancestors might've done a thousand years ago at this very spot.

Except my ancestors wouldn't be looking in the sprung trunk of a wrecked car, which John does, finding a cheap plastic blue tarp. I ask him if we can put it over us for a blanket but John says the tarp will serve better as a ground cover, to keep the damp and cold from seeping up into our frail bodies. He says he'll look for something to put over us.

"No fire tonight?"

He doesn't think we should risk the attention it might bring.

Fire's a wonderful invention, I think, but, unlike our ancestors, we can't use it. For security reasons. Such is life in the modern era.

I ask John if someone can die of misery. "I know I don't have hypothermia but I am so tired and miserable of being cold. My feet hurt and itch and, last time I checked, the skin was cracking."

He pats my leg.

"No, John, the question wasn't rhetorical. Can a person die from being miserable?"

He said he didn't know, then he explained I had chilblains, that's what was causing my skin to crack and itch and hurt. "You have to keep your feet dry."

"I'm cold."

"Didn't Boatman's food help?"

"I suppose. Yes, it helped. I would've been colder without that food. I ate it all, John. I'm so sorry."

"No, you offered. I'm just...distracted."

"With thoughts of kings?"

"Yes."

John spreads the blue plastic tarp on the ground to the lee of a burned-out Mercedes SUV. In the twilight we can see fires here and there, across the river and down the way. In deference to John's somber mood, I don't start in again about how we should build our own nice, warm fire. He saw me shivering though and John said he would bring over dead leaves, there were tons of them around and they were dry and would make good insulation.

"How are you going to get them?"

"Stand up, I'll use the tarp."

"I'll help you. John?"

"What?"

"Are you okay?"

"Fine."

"If I lost you, I couldn't go on."

We took the tarp to the trees and filled it several times, bringing each load to the burned-out car, piling leaves there until we had a mound large enough to cover both of us. We spread the tarp on the ground again and repiled the leaves on it. He put some spidery limbs over the top to keep the leaves in place, though the night was thankfully windless.

We burrowed in. Primates make a simple leaf nest at night, we are primates. This den had none of the comforts of a real bed, I don't want to give a false impression, but the leaf-mound offered a nesting feel and filled my head with a powdery scent.

John and I had leaves between us but we could touch each other if it came to that.

"Cozy now?" he asked through the leaves.

I was a million miles from cozy but told him, "It's pretty nice, actually."

"The human body at rest produces two hundred and fifty BTUs per hour. That's about the energy from a seventy-five-watt bulb. You'll be taking off your clothes next."

I laughed.

He said it's been a blue moon since he heard me laugh.

Yes, put a baloney and cheese sandwich in me, I become a party girl.

I think if you start out your life sleeping in a bed, you never get used to sleeping on the ground. I hated it during all those years of the calamity. And on that cold hard ground under leaves and next to a Mercedes, I remember Tom's death. Pigs scavenge at night. Now every sound I hear will put a fist in my throat. My stomach churns and I pray to keep Boatman's sandwiches down.

"Tonight's the calm," John says. "Tomorrow we open the hinge of history."

"You mean meeting that king?"

He says yes that's exactly what he meant.

Here I am worrying about pigs while John has kings and history hinges on his mind.

"John?"

"Yes."

"How will you know him?"

His answer comes quickly. "He'll be magical from first sight. It won't be one of those situations like when you meet someone of note but the person is so unprepossessing that later on you say you had no idea he or she was important. This one, this king, he will prepossess from the git-go. Something distinctive about him. An aspect of the man. A sense of possibility, of danger, of magic. There will be about him a certain magnificence. The loose and confident way he walks. His eyes are green."

Later in the night I hear John whispering prayers and I feel sorry for my husband, a lapsed Catholic yearning for grace and praying for the impossibility of an American king. His Hail Marys are heart wrenching.

"John," I say, reaching through the leaves to find his papery hand.

"I have such a great wish for him, Mary."

"I know you do."

Copyright © 2007 by David Lozell Martin

9

Another adamant day depressed me awake, shivering, needing to pee, a terrible rumble in the bowels. This next hour will be nasty. As if to offer a hopeful answer or mock me, I'm not sure which, clouds separated and light broke across the river to flood our little grove. John reached through the leaves and pulled me close. He spoke with fetid breath, which didn't disgust me, this was, after all, my beloved John, but which did make me feel bone sad for the man. We were both such wrecks. What he said, however, stood in vivid and hopeful contrast to the way he smelled. John called me his little darlin' and told me not to worry, here comes the sun.

Copyright © 2007 by David Lozell Martin

10

John waited patiently for me to get over my bowel sickness. I washed off in the Potomac River. Moving upstream from where I had just cleaned my hands, I leaned to the freezing river and drank directly as one has learned to do in this calamity. God knows what's in the water and what it'll do to my tortured innards.

"Ready?" John asks brightly when I return to him.

I nod.

On Memorial Bridge we encounter the first people of the District. They've been propped in sitting and leaning positions along the concrete railings and sidewalks of the bridge. When we see that many are missing hands, missing arms, we know it was Patagonians that made these killings. A few of the bodies have been decapitated and propped into sitting positions on benches, holding their heads on their laps. Thus are we welcomed to the nation's capital, by a boulevard of atrocities. The cool weather has preserved the bodies in fair condition but with the sun warm today and spring coming, the stench will be unbearable soon enough. They'll be tipped over the rail and into the river, a burial that thousands have undoubtedly already received — and when I recall drinking downstream from here, I get stomach sick and soul sick.

John puts an arm around my shoulder and we walk like that across the bridge. The first living people stare at us strangely. They seem relatively normal. No one appears prosperous or fat but, still, compared to John and me...and that's when I realize they're staring at us with repugnance because we are walking skeletons, their own personal forecasts, which they find appalling.

An older woman in a heavy coat offers me an apple. I shrink back. Something must be wrong with that apple, people don't give food to strangers. She's crazy, she's a witch. But then I see her eyes, wet with pity, and I take the apple and am ashamed.

As if I am committing some perverse act, I eat half the apple with my head turned away from the other people we see on the bridge. I offer the other half to John.

He shakes his head.

I tell him, "You're scaring me. You keep turning down food, first from Boatman and now this apple. John. What's wrong with you?"

He shakes his head but I insist.

"It's my teeth."

I look at his mouth, which he's keeping closed. "What's wrong with them?"

"They hurt. They're loose in their sockets. Like my whole jaw is coming apart."

"Oh, John."

A dental problem in our current situation is horrible.

"You need vitamins, you need the citrus in this apple."

"If I try to eat," he tells me quietly, "my teeth will come out."

I chew a bite of apple until it's mushy and then finger it over to my husband, telling him to suck on it and swallow the juice — which he does eagerly, wiping his mouth and weeping just a little. I feed him another piece. "Why are you crying, you big baby."

"Exactly. A baby, toothless, fed by hand, a baby." He wipes his eyes with filthy hands and cries openly as people gather around us to gawk.

"Can you spare some food?" I ask, apparently shameless.

They are horrified, not at my request but at our condition.

John tells me, "Don't shame yourself."

"The shame is on them," I say, loud enough to make sure they hear. Still, my words don't get us even a slice of bread.

We walk around to the Lincoln Memorial and here, on the steps and filling the great expanse beyond, here are the citizens of the nation's capital, clustered in groups, circled around fires, moving in a great swirl of activity that appears aimless...we can smell the smoke of their campfires and the stench of their garbage and sewer, we hear their shouts and see small riots break out here and there, one group overpowering another or a single individual set upon by dozens, caught, dragged away. I want to go home and starve in suburbia.

"Come on," John says, taking my hand. "People won't bother us."

"Why are we the only ones starving?"

John doesn't know. "Is there more apple?"

But we have finished it to seed and stem.

"I wouldn't mind having some more even if it made my gums sting," he says, opening his mouth to inhale cooling breaths. What I see inside that mouth is unspeakable.

We pass among the people and John is right, they leave us alone. Although they aren't starving the way we were starving, still they have about them a demeanor that's equal parts fear, bitterness, anxiety.

As we walk down the steps and away from the Lincoln Memorial, John produces two lengths of string to tie around our left wrists.

"John, for crying out loud..."

"Indulge me."

I do.

With strings around our wrists, we walk along the Reflecting Pool, which is stagnant. Several cars and one city bus are in the water. None of the usual ducks, however. Have the people been eating ducks and park squirrels, is that how they've put off starvation?

Bodies are strewn around the World War II Memorial, and they have been here long enough to raise a stink.

"John, let's go back."

He shakes his head. "To the White House."

"Oh my God."

"What?"

"Look, someone's blown up the Washington Monument."

When we get closer, we see that the monument was apparently toppled by a plane — the burned wreckage of an aircraft mixed and mingled with charred-black stone from the monument.

"Terrorists?" I ask.

John doesn't know but speculates it was an accident. In the final weeks of commercial aviation, plane wrecks became commonplace as desperate people bribed and bullied flights that should've never taken off as airport services were shutting down and fuel became increasingly contaminated.

As we cross Constitution Avenue, we encounter gathering crowds. This is intimidating, frightening, noise from people incessantly talking, shouting, arguing. As loud people spot us, however, they grow quiet with morbid curiosity for our walking skeletons.

John occasionally holds up his left wrist to show the string.

Embarrassed, I tell him to put his hand down. "John, these people don't know what the string means." How could they, he just made it up yesterday.

The Ellipse is thronged by refugees, the displaced, walking wounded, those who are lost, children stunned into silence, people hungry though not starving, not yet.

Away from the parks it is less crowded, John and I circling around on various streets, eventually joining a crowd in Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.

"What's going on?" John asks a fellow in the crowd, who starts to answer until he sees our condition and then backs away like we're plague carriers.

A young woman presses a stale roll into my hand and moves off into the crowd before I can thank her. The bread is hard, John will never be able to eat it unless I chew it first. Pre-chewing that apple for him was easy but handing him a warm piece of masticated bread will test our bond.

I'm gnawing on the roll when John announces he's going to work his way through the crowd and see what's going on across the street at the White House.

I tell him we are not splitting up.

Holding hands and bracing ourselves against the touch of others, we maneuver among the people who are resentful of being pushed until they turn and see us, then step aside.

I get another chunk of the stale roll bitten off and into my mouth where I chew it like hardened gum.

We are stuck on Pennsylvania, too many people. The crowds spook me toward panic and I hold tightly to John. My bones are kite sticks and my skin parchment paper, too delicate for jostling crowds. And I resent their frank stares.

I'm gnawing on my stale roll when John abruptly shakes my shoulder, causing me to drop the roll. I curse and fall to my knees, thinking I'll have to scrabble for it and fend off others — but no one bothers trying to steal my bread, which I grab from the pavement and hold meagerly with both hands, pressing stale roll to ribby chest.

John is still trying to get my attention, pulling on my clothes and speaking my name.

"What, for chrissakes, John, what is it?"

"Look. It's him, Mary. Our American king!"

Copyright © 2007 by David Lozell Martin

11

What was he really like? See, that's the second of the three questions people always ask me. Everything you've heard about what kind of man he was in the beginning, when he was still good-hearted and true, it's all accurate and historically correct — he was perfectly formed and magnificent. Not just charisma. That's what everyone says, he had charisma. Yes, but more than that. Certain people in history have about them an aura of greatness, of otherwordly differentness, and these certain individuals compel us. How did Joan of Arc, a sixteen-year-old farm girl, convince the royal court to give her an army and then lead that army to defeat the English? Certain people of greatness have a basic quality that resonates with us, that our genetic makeup remembers from a million years of evolution. That's what Tazza was like.

Sections of the piked fence around the White House had been pushed down, unescorted citizens wandering the grounds, and I asked John, "Have we taken over the White House?" Meaning we, the people. He doesn't know, doesn't answer, isn't listening to me — my husband lasered on the man there by the fence, a crowd tightly around this man John supposes to be our king.

I can see only bits and pieces of what's going on, people moving in front of me as I grasp tightly to John's waistband, which offers a generous handhold.

The man in question is too far away for me to know if his eyes are green but everything else John has predicted seems true enough: a commanding presence.

But nothing obviously royal in apparel, he's wearing blue jeans and a white shirt, a man just over six feet. He moves, the crowd shifts, and I see then several bodies hanging from the White House fence. Short lengths of rope have been tied around their ankles, the other ends looped over the spikes in the fence. Their heads are hanging a few inches above the sidewalk, ashen faces turned away from us and toward the fence. Several more bodies are on the ground as yet unhung. They are all men and they are all wearing suits, jackets open and draped all wrong now that they're dead.

John's king does an extraordinary thing, he grasps a body on the ground, grabbing lapel and belt, and lifts the body into a short arc with such power and grace that you think for sure he's going to toss the body completely over the fence, feet first, if such a thing were possible, but, instead, he swings the upside-down body until the loop of rope catches around a fence pike, then he lets the body hang down while he turns its face toward the fence.

"I hang them the way they spoke their words," he tells us. "Upside down and backwards."

John and I join the cheering even though we are ignorant of the context — who is it hanging there from the White House fence and how had they died and, if killed, why?

He speaks to us, answering questions he hasn't been asked, walking the line of hanging bodies.

"This traitor was elected to Congress a poor man representing working families, but after he became rich he could be counted on to vote against unions. He has betrayed us for the last time."

As we cheer again, I glance at John's face — radiant.

"This one's a senator born to wealth," the man continues. "He was given every privilege, yet he would not open his pockets to help his citizens who were starving."

This king walks from the fence to come among us, people everywhere reaching out to touch something of him, a sleeve, an arm, his hand.

He returns to the bodies on the ground and nudges one errant arm, French-cuffed. "We have lobbyists with their fists full of dollars, we have the wealthy who never gave anything back, and, here, this one, he was a consultant who specialized in firing people, downsizing they called it, he got bonuses doing it, firing with equal fervor the newly employed with young familes and the old people with no hope of getting another job, and he became famous for a technique he called, 'Listen, nod, nothing.' When someone came to him to talk about being fired after twenty years of loyal service, he would listen, nod sympathetically, and then do absolutely nothing for the person. He would brag about his work and make fun of grown men who cried to lose their jobs. We know all this because one of the workers he fired brought him here and as you can see we downsized him good."

This speech he's giving is not loud, no broad gestures, it's more like he's talking intimately to a small group of us.

He grabs the one who's French-cuffed and lifts him to hang him by the rope around his ankles, upside down from the White House fence.

We cheer, he comes among us again.

When I can see him up close, it's like falling in love. His head seems large, his face heavy. He has even features. I enjoy looking at him, it's a restorative, and my empty stomach feels the full excitement of his presence. The mood among us is as if anything can happen — miracles or fistfights. His complexion is dark but not like mine, more tan than blood, his thick hair, fingered straight back, is black. John was right, lucky guess or not — the man's eyes are green, green like seawater is green on those days when it looks like green paint. When the man passes closest to us (he doesn't notice or speak to John or me), his scent is strong. Not body odor but something distinctive. I'm not repulsed by his smell, in fact I felt a twinge of something long dormant.

Speaking now to people who have circled close around, the man says, "We have measured their offenses. And they have been weighed guilty by the hundred-weight and by the penny-pound." Cheers! "At a time when leaders were needed most, they abandoned us and looked after their own, after the power brokers and money holders. Where are our real leaders? Not among those hanging from the fence and ten thousand more like them, haughty and high and mighty — where are the people's leaders? Where are our poor kings with stars in their eyes?"

At the mention of kings, John squeezes my hand, but it proves to be a passing reference.

"Instead of great chiefs with fiery visions, we were given small men on fat accounts. We were given men and women who know nothing of us, who instead of spinning stories of our greatness, they spun the truth to suit themselves. Where are the presidents and ministers who leave public service impoverished because they were rivers to their people? No wonder we hang them upside down and backwards. They are America's shame and we don't want to see their faces."

We repeatedly cheer this voice.

He moves away and says things down the line that cause others to cheer as wildly as we had. This is the most exciting moment of my life — of John's, too.

He hollers at a tall man near us, "What's his name?"

In the din, we don't understand the shouted reply.

"Who is he?" John asks, hoping to hear king in reply.

But the tall man shrugs and moves away from us, crazy skeleton people.

John is trying to drag me through the crowds to get closer to the king when again there he is right in front of us, except this time he sees us, looking right at us. He stops everything and takes John and me by our stick arms, moving us gently out of the crowd, leading us back to the fence, and then turning us to face the people.

"Do you see this?" he asks, his voice soaring. "These are Americans. Starving to death. Millions across America have already starved. There was enough to go around but everything was confiscated by our leaders, by the rich, the power class. They holed up on military bases and on islands and on peninsulas and for a while there in the White House, staying well fed while this is what happened to America." Again he indicated us, putting powerful arms around our bony shoulders. "This is what they want for us, America. This is the plan those hanging from that fence had for us. We are better than this!"

John and I are horrified to be paraded as a terrible fate in store for the rest of them, yet we're thrilled to be in the center of this great man's attention.

The people shout. "Tazza! Tazza!"

Hearing it clearly now, John whispers that name, repeats it, rolls Tazza in his mouth like something hard and sweet.

The man strides back and forth in front of the people, exalting them and smiling and holding out both arms to figuratively embrace his people. He is bold, magical, dangerous, commanding, magnificent. People love him. John and I love him. We love Tazza.

He is such a natural king that we assume this love for him and hope he loves us back, are thrilled when he says he does.

Americans never felt our worth, the true weight of our own worth, until this man spoke to us.

He takes John and me with him, Tazza mobbed by those who wish to speak a word or hear one from him, to touch him, to ask a favor, to tell of some loss, to see if they can see in his eyes that he loves them.

He's tireless and we follow in his wake, joyous people weeping.

Copyright © 2007 by David Lozell Martin

Meet the Author

David Lozell Martin's previous novels include international bestsellers Lie to Me and Tap, Tap and the critically acclaimed The Crying Heart Tattoo, The Beginning of Sorrows, and Crazy Love. Facing Rushmore is his eleventh book. Martin lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

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