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BOOK REVIEW : Spirit and Memory of 'The King' Take Center Stage in Tale : GRACED LAND, By Laura Kalpakian, Grove Weidenfeld, $18.95; 293 pages

August 25, 1992|BEVERLY LOWRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Laura Kalpakian's new novel, Elvis is alive and well and not just another pretty face on a postage stamp. Kalpakian places the spirit, music and memory of the man--fat, thin and otherwise--stage center in the life, mind and heart of 42-year old Joyce (a.k.a. Rejoice) Jackson.

Joyce lives in St. Elmo, Calif., a fictional town east of Los Angeles, out I-10 in a desert-like poverty-ridden county this side of Palm Springs. She has two daughters, named (what else?) Priscilla and Lisa Marie.

When Joyce and her daughters speak of Elvis, it is as if he is there in the room with them, real as a chair. On their front porch they have fashioned a shrine, sacred to the memory of the late singer. There are Gideon Bibles, wreaths of plastic daisies, twinkling Christmas lights, American and Confederate flags and a "poster-sized picture of the mature Elvis wearing a white spangled bodysuit with a flaring cape, his knee bent in a posture at once dramatic and humble, emphatic and supplicating, intense; he held the mike in a white-knuckled grip. . . ."

The protagonist of "Graced Land" is not Joyce Jackson but the chronicler of her life and passions, Emily Shaw, 23. A product of a whole other version of Southern California, Emily grew up in Laguna Beach, went to USC, pledged Tri-Delt, started out majoring in English and then, because she'd enjoyed being a candy striper at St. Luke's Hospital By-The-Sea and wanted to "help people, to bring the Less Fortunate into fuller participation in society and see people lead full and happy, useful lives," switched to sociology.

The English, however, took. Emily daydreams in quotes. Shakespeare especially.

The time of the novel is spring, 1982. Elvis has been dead five years. Emily is engaged to a fellow USC graduate, but Rick has gone off to Georgetown University to law school, leaving Emily in Southern California alone.

For something to do, Emily has gotten a job with California Social Services. She has moved to a brand-new apartment complex hard by the malls and freeway in St. Elmo and is making home visits to the welfare clients on her list.

Rick has been promised a place in Emily's father's prestigious Newport Beach law firm when he returns; in the meantime, Emily feels warehoused.

She thinks of herself as an old-fashioned Renoir kind of girl who more than anything wants to be Rick's wife, yet she's modern. If she doesn't exactly want to be independent, she needs to think she does. Self-worth, she reminds herself, cannot come from your husband. First, though, she also tells herself, first you have to have a husband.

Joyce Jackson is one of Emily's clients, in whose life it doesn't take Emily long to get all-too-unprofessionally involved. Joyce has been on welfare for about 18 years, so by now she knows the ins and outs of the game and how to make a life within the system.

With the girls, she goes to garage sales, buys the cheapest rags and clothes, cuts them apart, stitches them up into antique quilts to make a few extra dollars--unreported of course to Social Services. Some she gives away, saying, "Elvis Presley wants you to have this."

In her teen-age years, the mid-'50s, Joyce divided herself in two. Rejoice "was a modestly clad, God-fearing girl who sang in the choir of the Church of the New Disciples, prayed continually and believed rock 'n' roll came from the devil. Joyce, on the other hand, lied with the ease of someone who had hell tattooed all over her afterlife."

When in trouble, Joyce took an Elvis pill: closed her eyes, felt his presence like a wafer on her tongue, heard his music move through her as the wafer dissolved.

When her father beats her, Joyce looks for help first to Jesus and then to Elvis. Eventually, Emily finds the burning love within herself. She also discovers that her friend and mentor is a welfare chiseler, but by then the bond between client and caseworker is stronger than that between Emily and the numbing laws that govern her profession. By then, Emily has moved far beyond caseworker-hood, as well as Laguna Beach and Rick.

Honestly, the book is a little glib. There are too many capitalized buzzwords, too much Tri-Delt, Shakespeare and, frankly, Elvis.

But "Graced Land" is warm, funny and expansively good-hearted. Joyce Jackson is a triumph of sensuality and spunk. I can't help wondering which version of the Elvis postage stamp she'd have voted for. Thin Elvis is my guess.

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