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First Fiction

March 18, 2001|MARK ROZZO

ELVIS AND NIXON

By Jonathan Lowy

Crown: 336 pp., $22.95

They say it's the most requested image in the National Archives: President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley locked in an unlikely, surreal Oval Office handshake on Dec. 21, 1970. Jonathan Lowy takes this image-a perennial icon of creepy kitsch-and blows it into a tableau that's heavy with foreboding and comedy, a kind of unflattering snapshot that's every bit as bizarre as the one that inspired it. It's hard to tell which of these two self-made American colossi comes off worse: Nixon is the standard-issue cartoon of quivering jowls, hunched shoulders and anti-Semitic paranoia. He's the resentment-powered SOB we all know, pacing around a gray, uptight White House.

The King, hopped up on prescription drugs and loaded down with handguns, honorary law enforcement badges, theosophy books and fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, is likewise caricatured, but there's something ungenerous in Lowy's treatment: Did Elvis really weigh 300 pounds in 1970? Was his father Vernon really an overbearing jackass? Did Elvis really feel that out of touch only a year after "Suspicious Minds'? The answer to these questions is probably no, but still, how to make sense of this power summit in which the two opposing symbols of the 1950s discover they need one another?

In the end, it's unclear just what has gone down, and the subplots that Lowy swirls around Elvis and Nixon-of a one-armed Vietnam vet, of a stiff colonel and his protester son, of the White House toady who sets up the infamous meeting-are as inconclusive as they are entertaining, leaving "Elvis and Nixon" as enigmatic and troubling as its larger-than-life antiheroes.

*

LOOSE ENDS

By Neal Bowers

Random House: 224 pp., $22.95

Neal Bowers' debut-a low-key psychodrama, as if Alfred Hitchcock were directing a Raymond Carver screenplay-is appropriately titled: Loose ends are generally what one encounters upon the death of a parent. In this case, a guy named Davis Banks has flown back from Iowa to Nashville to bury his mother; he's a bit at loose ends himself.

He's neurotically ambivalent about his hometown, about his mother, about his long-dead father, and about himself. He's so abstracted there in his mom's empty house that he realizes he doesn't even know how, when, why or where his mother died. And he's a recreational liar, too, impulsively inventing weird stories and personae for the hell of it. "The truth had become negotiable, not fixed." It's an old truism that Davis and his creator play to the hilt, making this book all about half-states: between truth and lies, life and death, health and sickness (Davis is a diabetic forever forgetting his insulin shots). It's all the more strange, then, when Davis discovers a skeletal arm jutting into his mother's grave and is sent into detective mode: the pathological liar as truth seeker.

Like Davis, Bowers juggles these weighty preoccupations with toying nonchalance; we're like the guy who's trapped next to Davis in economy class, captivated by this profoundly dark shaggy-dog story.

*

THESE GRANITE ISLANDS

By Sarah Stonich

Little, Brown: 310 pp., $24.95

'These Granite Islands" is the kind of book that instills a hunger for more; like a well-paced feast, it continually stimulates the appetite and puts off satiety until the very last course. Some people are suspicious of books that make the act of reading as natural as breaking bread. Sarah Stonich isn't concerned. Her debut is an acute, unfussy tale of the domestic sphere. It's about a woman named Isobel who, nearing 100 and on her deathbed, is drawn back to the summer of 1936, when her husband and two boys retreated to a remote island in a Minnesota lake, leaving her behind in the granite-mining town of Cypress.

As Stonich shifts between the oxygen-tented Isobel of today and that long-ago summer, we see Isobel adjusting to life without men and finally getting her hat-making business going in the back of her husband's tailor shop. She's befriended by a high-strung former debutante from Chicago named Cathryn, whose very presence-and piles of poetry books-seems to affect Isobel to the bone, especially when Cathryn disappears with her D.H. Lawrence-esque paramour-either to her untimely death or to the altar. It's a mystery that still haunts Isobel and that might be solved in her final earthly moments. This is artful melodrama, and there's a constant sense of excavation going on here of shadowy truths-about love, friendship and memory-delicately unearthed.

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