It's the mid-1960s, and Walter Selby is living the American dream or so he thinks. A decorated World War II veteran, he has a beautiful wife and children and an important job as the right-hand man to the governor of Tennessee. Selby seems to have everything going for him, but on the first page of Jim Lewis' new novel, The King Is Dead, his dream starts to crumble. He comes home early, delighted to have some extra time with his wife, and finds her palms are wet. It's the first clue that all in Selby's world is not as secure as it seems. His wife, Nicole, cannot forget the past, in which she loved a jazz musician with a passion that eclipses the tame affection she feels for her husband. Unable to commit herself emotionally to her marriage, she undertakes a series of meaningless affairs until her husband catches a lover naked in his backyard. Soon his destiny spins out of control.
The first two-thirds of the novel focuses on Selby, and the last third takes up the story of his troubled son, Frank, a boy brought up in foster and adoptive homes, haunted by his past. Lewis also peoples his tapestry with a myriad of small character portraits, including a moving description of Kimmie, Frank's first love a beautiful, but psychologically fragile young woman who falls over the edge of sanity into a gulf of paranoia and obsession.
The Selbys, father and son, intersect with the century's key institutions: war, Hollywood, illegal immigration, industrialization and violent crime. In a page-turning narrative, Lewis explores the underbelly of American society from the Tennessee Valley Authority's eviction of poor African Americans to the failure of the U.S. military to protect its minority soldiers during the world wars. Lewis' writing distills what is most important about the social and political realities of his age. Like the Victorian political storyteller Anthony Trollope, Lewis is more than a novelist. In The King Is Dead, he has produced an ambitious epic of ideas, one that, in many ways, captures the changes and attitudes of the 20th century. Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.