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Fiction

IN BRIEF

April 12, 1992|MICHAEL HARRIS

ELVIS PRESLEY CALLS HIS MOTHER AFTER THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW by Samuel Charters (Coffee House Press: $11.95; 128 pp.) Poet, novelist and musicologist Samuel Charters steps on nobody's blue suede shoes in this novella, which consists of a single, unbroken monologue that wails and jangles like an electric-guitar solo. The voice is 21-year-old Elvis Presley's; he's phoning home from a New York hotel room on the night after the breakthrough 1957 performance in which TV cameras showed the Pelvis only from the waist up.

It's a moment when youthful innocence and the corruptions of celebrity hang in uneasy balance. Elvis tells his mother, Gladys, that he wants her to act with him in a movie--a movie in which her singing of a gospel song will save him from a girl who is tempting him to "sin." But all the while, band members are holding an orgy in the next room--Elvis has to cover the receiver and tell them to pipe down--and there's a groupie waiting for him, eating cheeseburgers on his bed.

Charters ("Jelly Roll Morton's Last Night at the Jungle Inn") captures the voice, the inflections, the humor, and although the phone-call idea is hard to sustain for 100-plus pages, he writes with rare insight about what it's like for an ordinary person to become famous. It's like being run over by a truck. Total loss of privacy. Disorienting attractiveness to the opposite sex. Finding yourself turned into a symbol in fans' and critics' heads alike.

Elvis wasn't ordinary, of course, any more than Madonna is today. Charters makes this clear, too. Something shrewd, knowing, even ruthless lurked beneath that baby face, that Mississippi drawl. In this basically sympathetic portrait--Charters seems to agree with Elvis that the music is what counts, not the backstage peccadilloes--we see him crawl out from under that truck and climb aboard and begin to ride it for all it's worth.

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