The Southern family romance has needed resuscitation for a long time. So long, that one wonders now if it was strictly of a moment—that “backward glance” to fading tradition, as World War II loomed. In The King Is Dead, Jim Lewis very nearly revives it, but creates a Frankenstein’s monster in the process. The plot is a classic tale of retribution and the dissolution of a family. Walter Selby, a speechwriter for the governor of Tennessee, catches his wife with another man, kills her, and lands in prison, separating him from his young children. Years later, his son Frank, a reluctant movie star in a midlife crisis, sets out to find him. Along the way Lewis addresses themes like racial loyalty, the decline of the South, and the instability of memory. But they come impacted in dead language, cobbled bits of cultural disjecta, and numerous postmodern maneuvers (one of which involves Yankees manager Casey Stengel).
In part one, Lewis renders the past as a stereotyped idea, setting bankrupt Southern poetry (“the prodigal inching of her blood”) against homespun cliché (“back in the days when days were new”). But as the book enters the present, he mostly dispenses with affectation, for example, lending a grim, Faulknerian immediacy to one character’s schizophrenia (“She stared at the pattern of the wallpaper . . . it was the letter s, it was the number 5“). On the eve of his quest, Frank surveys a teeming city and thinks, “A man could vanish in there and never be found, and his story would have to be invented after the fact, a pattern pulled from random events.” It’s a two-way postulate: Frank’s looking for his father, but he desperately wants to be the man who vanishes. It’s also a key to navigating the schizoid text, from which a not-so-minor truth emerges: The past may be irretrievable, but its potential stubbornly persists.