Spoiler alert: ED KING is a contemporary retelling of the tale of Oedipus. Yes, that Oedipus, who is fated to kill his father and marry his mother. The one whose name Freud borrowed to illustrate what he saw as universal subconscious motivations. There can be very few readers who don’t know the outlines of this story, which Sophocles retold 400 years before Christ was born. Yet, with this ancient yarn, David Guterson has cleverly and expertly woven a tragic and darkly funny modern myth.
"Do you know that grateful feeling you get as a reader when you realize you’re in the hands of a master storyteller? You will be entertained, you will never be bored, you will even be invited to ponder."
In an omnipotent, wry voice reminiscent of Phillip Roth, Guterson introduces us to actuary Walter Cousins and immerses us in the Seattle of 1962, where the World’s Fair touts a fabulous technological future. While Walter’s wife Lydia is hospitalized, Diane Burroughs, a young British au pair, moves in to care for their two young children. With her perennial ponytail and dungarees, Diane charms children and father alike --- in Walter’s case, dangerously. Diane suffers through the ensuing pregnancy in the Cousins’ rustic cabin up on San Juan Island, and Walter plans for an adoption. “Baby Doe, without a doubt, was going to be adopted, and he, Walter, was going to go home, like a sailor who’d been on a long sea voyage that included sharks, scurvy, pirates, a typhoon, and a broken mast en route.” But Diane, whose childhood in England was not exactly sunny, has other plans.
The baby, abandoned on a carefully chosen doorstep in a wealthy section of Portland, is taken to the Boys and Girls Aid Society of Oregon Home, where a bevy of young nurses lavish attention on him. Soon he’s adopted by a childless, professional Jewish couple in Seattle. Dan and Alice King name the baby Edward Aaron King, and proceed to give him every possible advantage in life, even a surprise little brother named Simon. They decide not to tell Ed he is adopted, spurning the advice of Dan’s father, who warns “The tooth fairy’s lying, the golem is lying, Santa Claus is lying, all of it lying, but this, Mr. Eddie, not adopted, that’s lying lying, that’s Number Nine of the Ten Commandments lying.” Ed and Simon both have heads for numbers. They go to the best schools and compete. Alice beams and applauds with the rest of the synagogue as Ed finishes delivering the bar mitzvah speech she wrote for him. Eddie becomes a nice Jewish boy, a brilliant student, a talented swimmer, a horny adolescent and a spoiled brat.
But what of the crafty and resourceful Diane? And Walter Cousins? Guterson picks up their stories in leapfrogging chapters, compelling us forward. Although we know the major plot points, the author manages to surprise us with their eventual denouement, even throwing in a few red herrings along the way. Diane, especially, cuts a wide swath through life, as an escort, as the young wife to a successful Portland businessman, as a divorcee, as a coke dealer, and even, hilariously, as a life coach. “By pushing objects around her desktop, she gave the impression that she was expending energy over clients and deserved to be paid ridiculous sums.” Especially in Diane’s adventures, Guterson reveals a wickedly acerbic view of human nature.
The Greeks weren’t afraid to take on God, and neither is Guterson. Ed King becomes the King of Search --- fantastically rich and powerful, but still a pawn of fate, destined to question --- to Search --- until the knowledge he seeks threatens to destroy him. Especially in Ed’s dealings with his arrogant and supremely annoying pilot Guido Sternvad, we sense the playful yet serious nature of this endeavor. Ed wants to fly his own plane, and Guido, the employee, must let him, but he never stops needling him. Who’s in charge? Ed believes he is, and godlike, he’s even hoping to instill consciousness in an artificial intelligence program he calls Cybil. Yet it is Cybil who, in her flat, midwestern accent, calmly provides the information that begins to unravel Ed’s certainty.
Do you know that grateful feeling you get as a reader when you realize you’re in the hands of a master storyteller? You will be entertained, you will never be bored, you will even be invited to ponder. At one point in their bizarre power struggles, Sternvad tells Ed, “I’m God here, okay? You’re along for the ride.” Regardless of what you think about fate and God, ED KING is a ride you don’t want to miss.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on October 20, 2011