Old King: A Novel

Image of Old King: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 4, 2024
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

With a primary setting in the backwoods of Montana in the late 1970s with some spillover into the earliest eighties, Old King tells the story of Duane Oshun, a divorcé who leaves Salt Lake City seeking a new life. He is a wishy-washy kind of guy, uncertain of what he wants, where to find it, or how to get it.

The people he meets in the small town he lands in are mostly content with their isolated existence and are suspicious of strangers. But Duane settles in, eking out a hand-to-mouth living doing odd jobs. His acquaintances include an adulterous preacher; a reclusive, angry man who rescues injured predators most would rather be rid of; a forest ranger who assists the rescuer on the sly; and Jackie, the ranger’s ex-wife, with whom Oshun carries on an affair.

Also among his neighbors is a seldom-seen hermit in a slap-dash cabin tucked into remote woods near where Oshun builds a cabin of his own. The inhospitable neighbor is Ted Kaczynski, known to history as the Unabomber. Unbeknownst to his neighbors, he experiments with explosives and plots his terror attacks in the remote wilderness. “His new detonator was working perfectly and the test blast he’d performed that afternoon was so powerful it completely eviscerated the deer carcass he’d strung up on the far side of Strawberry Ridge.”

While Kaczynski is a thread running throughout the last two-thirds of the novel, and we witness some of his early crimes, it is Duane Oshun’s story, and his—and anyone’s—encounters with the terrorist are fleeting. Oshun’s relationship with nature is not well established. In one passage in the deep woods, “He stopped and looked at the glacial till, wondering what forces had brought the huge boulders tumbling down, the tectonic plates and sedimentary layers. He felt a swell of emotion in his own heart, as it reflected the earth’s, and was surprised to find tears in his eyes.” Then, moments later, “Duane took the cheese sandwich from his pocket and tossed the plastic wrapping aside.” A character brought to tears by nature who, within a matter of minutes, defiles it with litter does not exactly ring true.

Jackie, Oshun’s sometimes lover, is the book’s most compelling character. She, alone, understands the nature of her community and the people in it. Concerning Oshun, “Again Jackie saw in Duane the lost boy trying to make sense of the world.” And of local men in general, “Life in the Blackfoot Valley never failed to surprise her, the way it brought every man around to face themselves.” She offers this advice to Oshun’s teenage son, who spends summers with his father and is contemplating a permanent move to the cabin in the woods: “Don’t forget you need other people, too, though. I’ve known men who went off to live alone in the woods, and none of them turned out right.”

Errors creep into most books, but Old King contains several that could be avoided by a careful author, an attentive editor, and meticulous copy editor. Upon Oshun’s arrival in town, “The steer snorted and lowered its head. Its eyes rolled, the bloodshot white giving them a crazed, comic aspect. . . . He screamed and sprinted toward his truck, oblivious to the sharp gravel cutting his feet, and dove headfirst into the bed. The steer’s blunt forehead missed him by inches. The beast swung around and rammed into the bumper. . . . The steer seemed determined to get in, bashing and swinging its head around, causing the axles to creak.” Bulls are often aggressive. Cows will attack if under stress or if a calf is threatened. But steers are made steers, in part, because it renders them docile. This attack (and others) by a steer is so unlikely it is incredible.

The author writes of a Vietnam veteran on a logging crew who “operated the skidder like it was a Humvee behind enemy lines” years before Humvees were heard of. Oshun describes a rogue grizzly: “It walks funny, too, kind of dragging that back paw,” then, a few pages later, we read of “The distinctive tracks it left—the left front paw favored.” One of Kaczinski’s victims, a computer salesman in Salt Lake City, “walked down the aisle between the display models: several Apple Macintoshes, the older Commodores in back,” years before Macintosh computers existed. Buffalo wings appear on a Montana buffet table long before that treat would have reached rural Montana, and Oshun laments that there is no “such a thing as a professional dirt-biking circuit” for his dirt-bike-afficionado son, even though a professional motocross organization had existed for decades.

Not to lose sight of the forest for the trees, the story is compelling at times. But at its conclusion, the book just seems to stop rather than end. Oshun’s fate is uncertain. We learn nothing more of Kaczynski save one brief line: “By the time the bomber was caught [decades later], three people had been killed and twenty-three more injured.” A brief postscript reports his still-later death in prison. The final chapter features a postal inspector, a character earlier in the story, involved in the investigation of Kaczynski’s first crimes, who visits the town years later in retirement but learns nothing to satisfy his curiosity—or that of many readers.