David Guterson

Ed King

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Ed King Summary

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A re-telling of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, American author David Guterson’s novel Ed King (2011) follows adopted Ed King as he becomes a wealthy internet entrepreneur, accidentally killing his father and marrying his mother along the way.

The novel opens early in the 1960s in Seattle, where actuary Walter Cousins lives with his wife and two children. His wife overdoses on sleeping pills and is hospitalized for “exhaustion,” brought on, in Walter’s opinion, by “domesticity.” Unable to run the household by himself, Walter hires a beautiful 15-year-old au pair, Diane Burroughs. With his wife still in the hospital, Walter soon falls into a flirtation with Diane, which culminates in a month-long sexual affair.

Diane gets pregnant. Walter is still trying to talk her into an abortion when his wife is released from the hospital. He secretes Diane in the family’s summer home, where she can carry the baby to term. In exchange, she agrees to give her baby up for adoption.

However, Diane has a plan of her own. The day before the adoption is completed, she flees the maternity ward with her baby and heads to Portland. She leaves her newborn on the doorstep of an expensive looking home and wastes no time calling Walter to blackmail him. She demands monthly child-support payments. Diane uses the money to print business cards, bribe hotel concierges, and set herself up as a high-end call girl.

Meanwhile, Diane’s baby is taken in by a wealthy Jewish couple, Dan and Alice King, who name their adoptive son Edward Aaron, after Elvis. Alice dotes on her son, who quickly proves himself a prodigy, mastering everything from swimming to academics. A curious boy, he takes up a rapid-fire sequence of hobbies (allowing Guterson to satirize various American subcultures). As he enters adolescence, however, he begins to show flashes of his biological parentage, embarking on a wild phase. He drinks, experiments with drugs, and blows his bar mitzvah money on a 1966 Pontiac, which he hand-paints with racing stripes.

Walter’s other children, Tina and Barry, stop speaking to him when he is caught in another affair. For Christmas, Barry gives his father “a pine-scented car freshener,” so, in the new year, Walter visits his son in college, in an attempt to repair their relationship. Barry, who spends his time playing “doom metal” in a college band, rebuffs him, and as Walter drives home, he becomes involved in an altercation with a teenager driving a 1966 Pontiac with racing stripes.

Ed runs Walter off the road, not knowing who he is. Walter crashes and breaks his neck. The next day, learning of Walter’s death, Ed is overcome with guilt and fear of being caught. He secretly attends Walter’s funeral and stalks Tina, before becoming bed-bound with depression.

The Kings send Ed to a therapist, and a course of antidepressants turns Ed’s life around entirely. No longer depressed, he becomes seriously interested in mathematics and embarks on an affair with his teacher, which leaves him with a lifelong preference for older women.

Meanwhile, Diane turns legitimate by marrying the heir to a ski-products fortune. She spends his money on a lengthy series of cosmetic procedures which leave her looking ten years younger than she is. Her past as a call girl catches up with her, her husband abandons her, and to maintain her lifestyle she turns to cocaine dealing.

Ed proceeds to Stanford, where he is swept up in the Internet boom. He develops a search-engine called Pythia which makes him a billionaire in his twenties. Known as the “King of Search,” Ed flies between his many homes on private jets and begins to mull deep questions of probability. Can an algorithm determine a person’s fate?

He is attending an exhibition on probability at the Pacific Science Center when he bumps into Diane. Mother and son do not recognize one another, but their attraction is instantaneous. After a lengthy sexual encounter, mother and son end up marrying one another. For several decades, Ed and Diane travel the world together, as Ed’s internet company grows increasingly powerful.

Ed becomes interested in artificial intelligence and develops an AI called Sybil. As he reaches middle age and begins to reflect on his life’s work, he becomes frustrated that Cybil is not more lifelike. He sets about teaching Cybil to be more human, drawing on his own experiences. Soon Cybil knows enough about Ed’s life to reconstruct—drawing on information available online—the truth about his parentage. Cybil reveals to Ed that the man he killed as a teenager was his father and that his wife, Elaine, is his mother. The narrator enters the story to compare Ed to another figure of Greek myth, Icarus, as his own invention drives him mad.