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Whiz, Bang, Thud

How to ruin a great book


As a lesson in poor narrative choices, or of how to ruin the second half of a promising story, Jim Lewis' The King Is Dead may be hard to top.Squandering 145 pages of tautly written prose and well-crafted plotting, Lewis follows the novel's breathtaking climax with a 120-page denouement so ill-conceived the reader will ask the author the same rhetorical question the annoying second-half narrator poses to the protagonist: "What's the matter with you?"

From a structural standpoint, the complete story is fairly straightforward and chronicles the lives of two men in the Selby family, father Walter and son Frank, and the awesome inheritance the former leaves the latter.

The first half of the book concerns Walter, a World War II hero with a successful career as a trusted aide to the governor of Tennessee. An everyman of sorts for the 1950s, Walter is a principled man largely untainted by the political cesspool he swims in. He's also a family man in the best sense, hopelessly in love with his gorgeous wife even after a decade of marriage, the father of two beautiful children and the provider of a wonderful home.

But in a strong contender for literature's Worst Day Ever, Walter first finds himself the fall guy for a deadly political scandal not of his own making and resigns in lieu of playing along with the governor's whitewash. Returning home early, now jobless, he catches his wife virtually in flagrante delicto with another man. Devastated, and with his perfect world in shards around him, he shoots his wife, botches his own suicide and orphans his children in one thoughtless moment.

Lewis generates thriller-like suspense by contrasting Walter's realistic career and marriage with simultaneous foreshadowing of the character's fall. He accomplishes this largely through brief chapters of alternating points of view that reveal the weak spots in Walter's defenses -- mostly other people's shortcomings and his inability to recognize them. When the climax arrives, and Walter finds himself staring at a naked man in the backyard and (momentarily) wondering why a repairman would want to work in the nude, you can't help but cringe at the low blow that's headed Walter's way.

Unfortunately, this is where it all goes wrong for Lewis and his reader. The author adopts a supercilious narrative voice in Part II designed to reflect the different eras (we pick up Walter's thread some 30 years after the murder through his son, Frank Selby Cartwright, a successful but mercurial actor). But rather than focusing our attention on the story, the narrator has suddenly become an equal partner. That he comes off as an overwrought Greek tragedian filtered through MTV, with a nasty solipsistic streak of self-help mumbo-jumbo thrown in for bad measure, doesn't help:

"Oh, oh, oh, Frank. You should have been a better man, you should have been a keeper, a maker, a millionaire, you should been singing praise-songs to the days-to-come, you should have been the raised arm, the mighty sword, you should have been the face on the first-class stamp. . .Frank: you poisonous man, you misshapen lover, you creature of the stupid bone, you destroyer of hours. . .Frank, you fucking asshole. Why don't you tell us now? Tell us all, so we'll know and we can stop wondering. Tell us: What's the matter with you, Frank?"

Well, for one, his father murdered his mother. Remember? Then there's the small matter of being shunted from foster home to foster home. There's also the story of Kimmie, Frank's first love and the book's one redeeming feature in the second half. She was a vivacious young woman of equal promise who, virtually overnight, loses her hold on reality and disappears from Frank's world, scarring him to the current day.

More importantly, Frank Cartwright, as described by this same narrator elsewhere, comes off as a pretty together guy, all things considered -- he's almost always taken care of his younger sister, does what he can financially for his daughter and ex-wife, and has made a good career for himself even if, at times, he's been his own worst enemy.

Lewis so muddles the second half of the book that by the time Frank catches up with Walter -- as he's literally in his death throes at the hospital -- any enlightenment seems hopelessly forced and unreal. And, disappointingly, that goes for the reader as well.

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