by David Guterson; Knopf, 2011; 304 pages, $26.95
David Guterson’s first novel was the impeccable Snow Falling on Cedars, a bestseller that established him as one of our most gifted American authors. Since that time, Guterson’s work has steadfastly refused to remain the same. He is unafraid to turn a looking glass on contemporary life, isolating the faults in its cultural, political and religious construction.
Ed King just could be Guterson’s best novel yet. A quick glance at its title reveals its plot, for the book is Guterson’s contemporary reworking of Oedipus Rex. The plot of Sophocles’ play needs no outside embellishments from anyone. It has large themes, including patricide and incest. So does Guterson’s novel as it examines destiny and desire in wholly unexpected ways.
“In 1962, Walter Cousins made the biggest mistake of his life: he slept with the au pair for a month.” So begins this modern handling of the old tale. Walter is “an actuary, a guy who weighs risk for a living.” While his wife is recuperating from an overdose of prescription sleeping pills, Walter hires Diane Burroughs. Charming in Walter’s eyes, especially because of her British accent, Diane is duplicitous beyond measure. She’s in the country on a quickly expiring work visa and keeps secret the fact that she is only 15-years-old.
In quick succession, Diane gets pregnant, leaves the baby on a doorstep in an up-scale Seattle neighborhood and successfully blackmails Walter for child support for years. Meanwhile, their son grows up “the adopted son of agnostic Jews” who name him Edward Aaron King. Ed and his younger brother Simon become privileged rivals.
The novel tracks the separate lives of mother and son over the next decades. Diane becomes a young hooker in Portland, eventually marrying well until her sordid past catches up with her. Ever the survivor, Diane reinvents herself, with some help from her errant brother, Club, succeeding at many things from “coke dealer to kids holding down their first real jobs” to life coach.
Ed completes college, ever believing that he is in control of all things and that he should dream big. He eventually becomes ruler of the Internet, having predicted early on, “My plan is to be the king of search.” The only downside to his forward trajectory remains a dark secret: that drunken night when he forces a car off the road, killing the driver.
And there is more. After all, Oedipus Rex is about a man who kills his father and marries his mother. All of that happens, but Guterson refuses to sensationalize the events. In fact, one of the surprises of the book is how deftly he handles Ed and Diane’s “honeymoon” after their marriage at the Chapel of the Flowers in Las Vegas.
Ed King is not intended to be a point-by-point recreation of its source. It quietly, bravely, becomes a treatise on what contemporary life has become. It reminds us that we are in control of nothing about our lives and loves. It is a warning about the future, about waging war against “the historical truth that great companies decline and fall.”
So do we, David Guterson reminds us, so do we.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.