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Pretenders to the King's Throne : BIGGEST ELVIS. By P.F. Kluge (Viking: $22.95, 341 pp.)

August 04, 1996|RICHARD EDER

Three Elvis Presley impersonators are on the entertainment program at the Atlanta Olympics this summer. Naturally. For years, sideburned hip-pumpers, guitars aimed low, have featured in rallies, county fairs and strip-mall nightclubs across the country.

It is karaoke one step beyond: not just lip-sync but body-sync. It is tribute or rip-off, depending on how you see it, around the granddaddy icon of American pop.

You might think you know what P. F. Kluge's novel about a three-Elvis act will be like. A tour of the legend, with picaresque riffs and rib-sticking fast food from the culture kitchen. Also, of course, a pass or two at America's lonesome-whistle soul or--in Bob Dole's splendidly deflationary contribution to the public rhetoric--whatever.

Forget prediction. "Biggest Elvis" is all of the above but with a sparkle and bite that write them new. Beyond that, the whatever is of a size and sinew that make this a serious book as well as a very entertaining one.

The seriousness concerns a subject that in the last dozen years, as far as I can recall, only Joan Didion has fictionalized as well. Her "Democracy" evoked beautifully and chillingly the presence of Americans in the Third World. Kluge's novel deals with the same thing, but it is very different, because his carnival gives off sadness rather than chill and the American presence is valedictory.

Foreign policy being what it is, perhaps there is nothing so odd in titling a book about it "Biggest Elvis." Possibly no odder than such slogans as "Partners for Peace" or "The End of History" or, to go further back, "Alliance for Progress" or, to go all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley, "Manifest Destiny."

In fact, if Kluge had used a subtitle and were more obvious, he could have chosen "Manifest Destiny Meets Graceland." Two young brothers and a middle-aged English professor perform their unlikely and incandescent Elvis act in the Philippines, acquired by the United States when it began to think of an imperial role for itself and went to war with Spain. Their audience is the personnel at the vast Subic Bay naval base, a symbol of American world power at its postwar height, now being shut down.

Summarizing "Elvis" risks making a tangle of the complexities that Kluge weaves into his book. To simplify, it is two stories. One is the professor's, the other America's.

Chairs creak when Wade Higgins, 240 pounds of lolloping flesh, sits on them. "I inconvenienced the world," he declares. He is an expatriate with a splintered life and a dead-end job teaching literature at the university in Guam, a U.S. territory used largely as a military support system. Beached, Wade is a visionary nonetheless, a tough and inspiring teacher with nobody much to inspire, and a metaphysical as well as nostalgic passion for Elvis.

Dude and Chester Lane, nephews of a wealthy Guam entrepreneur, catch Wade's amateur Elvis number at a local nightclub. They convince him to make it a triple act and they get their uncle to back it. Moving to the Philippines, the trio takes over a honky-tonk bar in Olongapo, the liberty town just outside the Subic base, and renames it Graceland.

For a season or two they catch fire. Throngs come from the base and later from Manila and all over the Pacific. The innocent Chester does the young Elvis; the more cynical Dude--a career-minded actor--is the fabulous Hollywood star and Wade is Biggest Elvis, the star in gross decline.

Describing and expounding upon their act, Wade persuades us of its power--he evokes the songs vividly if lushly--along with its undoubted corniness. The three Elvises appear not one by one, as youth, maturity and age, but all at the same time. Biggest Elvis sings not only the later songs but those the others have just sung. Dude, skeptical, protests that this is confusing. Not at all, replies Wade. Shifting the time around allows them to "interrogate" the text.

It is a comic dig at literary deconstruction, but Wade is more than a witty academic. He is a true believer as well as a sophisticate. Intoxicated by success, he refuses to grant that the three Elvises won't go on indefinitely. He begins to see them redeeming not only his own middle-aged failures but America's spiritual role in the world. Loftier and loftier, he tells the town priest that both of them "work for men who died that people don't want to get rid of." Christ would have come to Olongapo, he argues; Elvis, in his Second Coming, is already there.

It could be insufferably pretentious, but Kluge, playing a deeper game, gently detaches Wade from his hyper inflated balloon. Other narrators--Chester, Dude, the priest--help bring him down to earth. So do Wade's own honesty and discrimination, particularly when the act loses its magic on a tawdry tour of holiday hotels around the Pacific.

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