John Estem has stolen $10,000 from Martin Luther King Jr.
It is 1964, and Estem has been hired by a Southern Christian Leadership Conference executive named Aaron Gant to audit the organization’s books. The reactionary establishment wants to hang tax-evasion charges on King. Now Estem has uncovered an odd contribution and decided to pocket the money: “I took it because I could, and no one would ever suspect I was capable of it.” An invisible man among high-powered personalities like Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy and Gant, Estem wanted to impress Candice, a lounge singer in a dive called “Count’s.” Candy is also Count’s girl. With money, Estem bought stylish clothes and a late-model Cadillac. A bundle of contrasts, Estem is arrogant and superior but self-conscious because of a leg brace; he's lonely for a woman’s companionship but resentful because he feels patronized; and he's self-pitying and weak-willed but also intelligent and manipulative. And naive. The FBI monitors the SCLC closely, and Strobe and Mathis, agents working to fulfill Hoover’s ambition of uncovering Communist influence in the group, catch Estem and extort him into spying. As with novels incorporating historical figures, readers might stumble over the contrast between public persona and fictional presentation. King’s humanity is amplified by imagined conversations with Estem wherein King admits his sexual appetites, but King is also beautifully drawn as a questioning, vulnerable, lonely man consumed with his cause. Plot-reliant rather than literary, the narrative gains urgency through use of a present-tense, first-person point of view. The dark conclusion descends into powerful moral ambivalence about love, loyalty and family.
Harrison’s debut novel contemplates a nightmare inside a dream.