The Last King
by Nichelle D. Tramble
Published by Strivers Row/Ballantine
336 pages, 2004
A Traitor Comes Home
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
In Nichelle D. Tramble's The Last King, former athlete Maceo Redfield is compelled to return to his hometown of Oakland, California, in hopes of helping his childhood best friend, Jonathan "Holly" Ford, beat a looming murder charge. There is a parallel motivation here as well: Maceo seeks redemption for having abandoned his family two years earlier, when he fled Oakland's hardscrabble streets. Set in 1992, The Last King is the sequel to the critically acclaimed novel The Dying Ground (2001), which introduced almost all of the characters featured in this present work. That includes the African-American Redfield clan, with their protective and complex inter-relationships, and Maceo's hoodlum inner-city comrades, menacing and loyal only to their own needs. Maceo, now 25 years old, quickly discovers that salvation comes at a steep price, however, as the sins of the past are replaced by a new series of brutal events.
Maceo's abrupt departure from California's Bay Area in 1989 followed the murder of his other best friend, Billy Crane, a local drug lord. Although Maceo had steered clear of crime as a vocation, he couldn't escape the violence thriving around him. Once a college baseball prodigy, Maceo was beaten up by local thug Smokey Baines, which left his shoulder badly injured and ended his dreams of a major-league sports career. Maceo is a refreshingly honest narrator, and confesses that he lacked the inner make-up to be what others expected him to become:
It was a bigger shame, I wanted to tell him, that I had lost my drive years before Smokey Baines eliminated the possibility of my success by dislocating my shoulder, spraining my wrist, and bruising my ribs. Gutsier players had come back from lesser injuries but I didn't belong in that category. Never had. Even at my zenith on the mound there was a part that always knew my success existed only in that moment.
Maceo had enjoyed the anonymity of the road, after The Dying Ground, but the memories and guilt of those he had left behind played at his psyche. The emotional scars he carries within him -- his mother killed at the hands of his father, who then abandoned young Maceo, leaving him to a life of "nightmares" and "a sixth sense for trouble" -- are reflected in the physical scar on this young man's face ("the last quarter moon carved into my cheek"). Though the adage is that you can't go home again, Maceo had never really left.
After two years of drifting, I finally knew there was only one place that could offer me a shot at peace, and that was my hometown. The city was my crossroads, the crooked man with the slanted grin, my temptation, and I wanted to beat it. I wanted to win, and yet I still had expectations, because when the Oakland skyline came into focus, a part of me expected to see grave dust hanging above the city, or a mourner's shroud of black clouds, to acknowledge all that had been lost with Billy's death.
For Maceo Redfield, the first priority in The Last King is to find Holly, who has certainly gone underground to avoid arrest. Holly sorely needs well-intentioned friends such as Maceo. After Billy Crane's death, Holly moved into the criminal vacuum left behind, and there carved out a substantial and lucrative gangsta turf, but at a cost. Holly's girlfriend, Cissy Redfield -- Maceo's aunt, but older than him by only six months -- was severely beaten by competing thugs, and left crippled as a "warning to Holly." It is Cissy who sends word to Maceo to come home and help Holly.
During those years that Maceo was away, Holly developed a friendship with Cornelius "Cotton" Knox, a National Basketball Association all-star with a bad temper and a gorgeous wife, Allaina. Cotton is another childhood acquaintance of Maceo's from the same black neighborhood, a poor boy with a God-given "talent so pure it transcended the physical," who grew up to become both wealthy and famous. The male teenagers of Oakland, who buy replicas of his basketball shoes and gaze up at billboards extolling his athletic prowess, view Cotton as "a king." But Knox's reputation is severely threatened when a call girl named Ivy is found bludgeoned to death in his hotel room. Local newspapers report that "an unidentified man" was spotted running from the crime scene, and Maceo is sure it's "only a matter of time" before Holly is offered up as the suspect. Cotton and Allaina seem all too willing to let Holly, a well-known gangster and police nemesis, be charged with Ivy's beating. As police look for him, loyal Holly realizes that Cotton may be trying to set him up for the crime, but by novel's end he and Maceo discover there are even more sinister goings-on involving Knox and his wife.
The Last King is a noir novel, and as such, it has certain expectations to fulfill -- which it does admirably. There is a dark tone to this sequel, established not only by the plot implicating Holly Ford in murder, but also by the story's general atmosphere and urban setting. King's realm is one of rough men ready to break bones with the slightest provocation, homeless men scratching for their next buck to buy a drink, quick and explosive violence and beautiful women who provide loving for a price. It is a landscape of crackheads frying their brains and bodies to death, and because the backdrop is the San Francisco area, there's inclement weather, too. Perhaps one of the darker elements comes in the form of stunning but dangerous call girl Sonny Boston, "an eight-cylinder chick with bodies in her past." Maceo is immediately attracted to Sonny. Using his self-effacing honesty, he knows she's trouble, but he just can't help himself.
My history with women had followed a pattern, from my first schoolyard crush to Felicia. When I'd been faced with making a decision between a nice girl -- the one who might pack an extra peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for me in her lunch box -- or the one who'd be willing to lure me to the monkey bars to get beat up, I'd politely declined the sandwich every time and took the ass-whipping.
One of Tramble's many gifts is her ability to flesh out the humanity of her characters. Sonny is cleanly mapped out as "hard and weathered, impatient and bruised." She doesn't know if she can trust Maceo, and so holds her cards close. The intoxicating Sonny is scared and must insulate herself against the indignities of her life. She is nonetheless an inspiration to Maceo to find the real killer and absolve Holly. However, it is also Sonny who's responsible for the weakest facet of this book, the late-in-the game revelation that she has been withholding information that focuses in on who really killed Ivy.
Beyond making amends with Holly, with whom he had become estranged over the years, Maceo has "dues to pay" with his own family, and this may prove to be a more difficult task. His grandparents Albert "Daddy Al" Redfield and Gra'mère Bouchaund reared Maceo. Nurturing and loving people, they also opened their home to Holly and Cotton when those two were boys and had nowhere else to go. Like many folks in their corner of East Oakland, Daddy Al and Gra'mère have seen their share of violence. Daddy Al once killed a man, and Gra'mère's sister, Celestine, was murdered. Though Daddy Al admonishes Maceo for letting "two years, an earthquake, and countless birthdays slip by before you came home," he's not really angry, because he knew it was inevitable that Maceo would return. "The legacy of blood and pain that went with the Redfield name was mine, but so was the history that bound us together," Maceo muses.
Like many outstanding crime-fiction works, such as Dennis Lehane's Mystic River and Steve Hamilton's North of Nowhere, The Last King is a novel of place. Tramble's characters don't merely live in Oakland; rather, they breathe in the city and are transformed by it ("I realized just how much I was stamped by the place"). Theirs is an Oakland that is "a blue-collar city to its core," and though it may have skyscrapers downtown, it "could feel like the piney woods of the most backward-ass state." It is the place where Maceo belongs, as surely as Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch belongs in Los Angeles and nowhere else.
Nichelle Tramble is an author to watch and to read enthusiastically. In her fiction, she strips away the complicating layers of both place and character, and finds the underlying essence and raison d'être that brings her players alive -- or sends them to their deaths. Tramble (already at work on a third Maceo Redfield novel) is magnanimous to the people who populate her books. She understands them, forgives them and sometimes scolds them, all with a huge heart. She has the expansiveness of soul that knows all people matter, from the crackheads all the way up to the athletically over-gifted. At one point in The Last King, Maceo notes that his "world had changed, and so had I." What I hope doesn't change is the wonderful literary ride that Tramble has shown herself capable of offering us each time out. | October 2004
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.