THE KING IS DEAD

Jim Lewis, Author . Knopf $24 (272p) ISBN 978-0-375-41417-6

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)

Reviewed on: 06/30/2003
Release date: 07/01/2003
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