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Missing Elvis

ELVIS IN THE MORNING A Novel By William F. Buckley Jr.; Harcourt, Brace: 336 pp., $25

July 22, 2001|JEFF TURRENTINE | Jeff Turrentine is an essayist and critic whose articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, Slate.com and other publications

"I'm going off now to see the director of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs," Elvis said. "Senator Murphy said he'd call him and tell him I wanted to see him. His name--" Elvis removed a memo pad from his pocket. "His name is John Ingersoll."

It takes a rare kind of self-confidence to pen a paragraph that has the king of rock 'n' roll running high-level errands through Washington D.C.'s corridors of power. But certainly no one has ever accused William F. Buckley Jr. of coming up short in that department. The avatar of modern American conservatism has never shrunk from a challenge, whether it was steadfastly averring the guilt of Alger Hiss over several lonely decades, threatening to sock a testy Gore Vidal in the face on national television or launching a fruitful new career as a spy novelist in the 1970s with his best-selling Blackford Oakes series.

In his 50 years as an author, television host, magazine editor, volunteer grammar policeman and right-of-center cultural provocateur, Buckley has patented a kind of smirking certitude that bespeaks an airtight grasp of gospel truth and a gleaming delight in finally, charitably, bringing it to the attention of the benighted. Even those who remain unpersuaded by Buckley's version of the "truth" acknowledge his supreme skill with the written and spoken word, which is nearly always coupled with a twinkling and disarming personal charm. It helps that Buckley is no stranger to big ideas. And he's proved with the Blackford Oakes novels that, despite his famously slouched sitting posture, he's no slouch as a storyteller. Above all, Buckley is a specialist in autopsy, whether of the moribund left or, now, in his literary dissection of one of America's most revered pop icons, who refuses, or so it appears, to stay put in the coffin in which he was laid to rest nearly a quarter-century ago.

In "Elvis in the Morning," his recent foray into cloak-free and dagger-free fiction, Buckley invents the tale of an improbable yet lasting friendship between a left-leaning tyro, Orson Killere, and none other than Elvis Presley to explore the seismic shifts that occurred in America during the King's reign. As they weave in and out of each other's lives--from Germany (where G.I. Elvis was stationed) to the campus unrest of the civil rights era, to Hollywood and to Las Vegas--Orson and his iconic best friend give each other golden advice, utter frank and difficult-to-hear truths and share in each other's many glories and ignominies.

Orson introduces Elvis to the fetching Priscilla Beaulieu, who will eventually become his bride, and brokers a somewhat less-than-fateful meeting between Elvis and President Nixon. Elvis, in turn, introduces Orson to his coterie of Bryl-creamed attendants, the "Memphis Mafia," and brokers Orson's first sexual encounter. From Orson, Elvis gets sage counsel and a sympathetic but unsycophantic ear; from Elvis, Orson gets a visceral rush every time he's in the presence of this "appropriate princeling of paradise," whom he believes is "addressing the sadness of the world and the desires of the world, as if to say that none of the traditional restraints were bearable."

So far it's not a bad conceit for a kaleidoscopic study of the divisive social themes that played throughout the two decades of Elvis' recording career. It would be curious to see what a Don DeLillo or even a Ken Kesey--two writers who acknowledge the mysterious primacy of personality cults and pop iconography in the American cultural calculus--would do with the idea of Elvis becoming best friends with a politically radical intellectual. Come to think of it, it would be curious to see what a true conservative intellectual like Buckley would do with such an idea, and one is genuinely sorry that this curiosity, alas, remains unsatisfied. For although "Elvis in the Morning" was undoubtedly born of Buckley's grandest intentions, it is so unfocused as a story, so careless in its craftsmanship and so facile in its observations about the tumultuous era it covers that it seems to recede from memory even while it's being apprehended, like a moment of musical filler from the second act of an insipid Elvis B-movie. Welcome to "Clambake: The Novel."

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