A review of Jordan Harper’s The Last King of California
By Justin Lee
“See a scar of smoke across the belly of the sky.”
That ominous opening line brings us into Jordan Harper’s The Last King of California. At the offset we are introduced to Beast Daniels, the big bad with bolts that is killing in the name of Aryan Steel. If you are familiar with Harper’s Edgar Award winning novel, She Rides Shotgun, you know that Aryan Steel is a SoCal gang that specializes in Dirty White Boy criminal enterprises. Beast gets the story rolling with a killing that will chill anyone to the bone. But this is not his story.
After trying to make it on his own in college, nineteen-year-old Luke Crosswhite is coming home. A place he had tried to put behind him. He tried to outgrow. His home is the base of operations for a low-level crime family known as The Combine. His uncle Del leads the gang, but Luke’s father calls all the shots from behind prison walls. Luke is reunited with his childhood friend Callie and her boyfriend, Pretty Baby.
Luke is longing for a place to belong. A role to fill. When he finds it among the ranks of The Combine, Beast Daniels appears and threatens to burn Luke’s new life down to the ground.
Fate and the weight of family legacy looms large over The Last King of California. Luke is expected by others to be just like his father. The truth is Luke doesn’t even know how to be himself. He was traumatized as a child after he witnessed the brutal act his father did that garnered himself a stint in prison. Harper shows this trauma in these little flashes of memory that spills into Luke’s present life. The taste of root beer. The flashes of parking lot lights. In a lot of ways, Luke feels like he hasn’t lived a life since that moment happened. Not like a dead man walking, just someone who isn’t alive. Through The Combine, he starts connecting with people and learning to cope with what has been haunting him. Unfortunately, life with The Combine comes with a price tag. Luke may feel alive but is person he is becoming who really wants to be?
In The Secret History by Donna Tartt, there is a passage that says: “There are such things as ghosts. People everywhere have always known that. And we believe in them every bit as much as Homer did. Only now, we call them by different names. Memory. The unconscious.” The characters of The Last King of California are haunted by these very ghosts. Luke is constantly reminded of that night so long ago with his dad. Those little memories poke through and touch his day-to-day life. He also feels like he is not like his dad, just “the ghost of him” and that he is haunting his childhood home instead of living in it. Almost like he is letting life happen to him instead of living it.
Callie and Pretty Baby have their share of ghosts as well. Both of them are reluctant members of The Combine. It’s their family, but they are not cut out for the outlaw life. Pretty Baby especially is viewed even by Callie as, “weak” or just not strong in the conventional way. But, despite whatever doubts Callie has about Pretty Baby’s strength, she “loves him all the way down.” I feel like Harper has flipped the role women have always been stereotypically in when it comes to crime stories and filled it with Pretty Baby. When they try to make a break for freedom, their plan backfires and they find themselves even more entrenched with the gang.
There are many moments throughout the story with characters looking to the sky. As if they see the openness of it as endless possibilities of freedom. The opening line of the novel mentioning smoke scaring the sky plays as a metaphor for those possibilities being tainted by what’s to come. Another line, “The sky above them is so full of stars it feels like a cage” could have multiple interpretations. The more hopeful one is that those stars are all the chances they have to take fate in their own hands and make life for themselves. The other, more downbeat reading could be that even the stars in the sky are saying they are trapped.
I know The Last King of California is only a narrative sequel to She Rides Shotgun in a very minimal way. Characters from Shotgun are mentioned as well as some of the events regarding Aryan Steel. Both novels stand alone as complete stories. However, I would argue that this is a sequel in many ways. Harper has a shorthand that is unique to both of these novels that economically tells us all we need to know about characters. Nate and Polly with the “gunfighter eyes.” Luke’s eyes that are “outnumbered even when is alone.” Callie with “wild eyes.” Pretty Baby with “eyes that shine like the light goes out instead of comes in.” In Shotgun, he reinforces these descriptions with the line, “eyes don’t only reflect what they are seeing. They also reflect what they’ve already seen.” If eyes are truly the windows into the soul, Harper had laid his characters bare on the page. The ghost concept is applicable to Nate in Shotgun as well. He is constantly driven and haunted by his brother Nick. You don’t have to read one to get the other, but I truly believe you will get so much more out of the story. In my mind, this is Jordan Harper’s Inland Empire Duology. In closing, The Last King of California is a story about overcoming trauma to carve a life for yourself that’s not bound by family, fate, or legacy. Jordan Harper is deservedly well known for writing dark fiction. But I think the sheer amount of heart and soul he puts into his work is just as vital to the stories he tells. This book is just another virtuosic performance by a master of his craft. I’m not a fan of hyperbolic reviews, but I truly believe we are witnessing the rise of the next great American writer.
Justin Lee lives with his family in East Tennessee. He is an Ex-Correctional Officer and is currently working towards becoming a Social Worker. His fiction has appeared in Punk Noir Magazine.