With his heroic proportions, Presley rates epics, at least Elvis: Cult & Culture

January 08, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

BETHESDA — You could say that Elvis Presley's life was stranger than fiction. So, then, what is Elvis Presley fiction like?

It's strange, yes. You'd expect that from people writing about someone who came to personify wretched excess before he died, bloated and worn out, in his bathroom at the age of 42. Any fiction writer with a smidgen of talent could find inspiration in his glorious and tragic life, not to mention such post-death phenomena as Elvis impersonators.

But Elvis Lit is much more. It's sympathetic and affectionate, even loving.

"It absolutely runs the gamut," says Lucinda Ebersole, co-editor of "Mondo Elvis" (St. Martin's Press, $12.95), a collection of fiction and poetry published to coincide with the 59th anniversary of the King's birthday today.

"What you see is a reflection of Elvis as an icon. Remember that there are 3 million people who visit Graceland [his Memphis home] every year. There was a whole generation that grew up with Elvis -- or made fun of him."

Judging from the contributions to "Mondo Elvis," there are plenty of writers in both camps. In Mark Childress' "Tender," a white teen-ager named Leroy living in Memphis in 1954 learns to love black music, pomade his hair and dress like a hipster. This happens at the same time as a similarly oriented Elvis was cutting his first record for Sam Phillips.

In a chapter from last year's novel "The Girl Who Loved Elvis," Susie Mee writes of the entire youth population of a north-Georgia town massing at the theater to watch the latest Presley movie: "Every time Elvis opens his mouth, the girls go wild. He makes everything look so easy."

In the more skeptical group fall such works as Michael Wilkerson's short story "The Elvis Cults." A man is held in Indiana by members of an Elvis cult, who undergo surgery to look like the King. The man wonders: "How had they discovered me? Had I talked in my sleep, or had I gyrated improperly to 'Jailhouse Rock'?"

Falling somewhere in the middle are Ms. Ebersole and her co-editor, Richard Peabody. They acknowledge Elvis' importance in American culture, but write in the introduction, "Many think that dying was a good career move for a man who had absolutely hit rock bottom in terms of his health and his career."

"I don't think they'll be selling this book at Graceland," says Mr. Peabody,who is given to dry, cynical asides.

Ms. Ebersole, 37, a Washington writer and editor, is also a student of pop culture; she was an associate producer for a TV show on lunch-box heroes. Growing up in Alabama in the 1960s, she was exposed to a heavy dose of Presley culture. Today, she likes the singer enough to collect Elvis memorabilia (ties, pins, clocks) and take a CD of his greatest hits when she travels.

Mr. Peabody, 42, a writer and editor who lives in Chevy Chase, has a different perspective. A native of Washington whose musical tastes run more to British rock, he smiles wanly when asked if a commentator on the Presley phenomenon could be too smart-alecky.

"No," he answers quickly.

But he does allow to liking some of Presley's music, and on this day is sporting a jaunty black Elvis tie given to him by Ms. Ebersole.

The editors say they knew there was a lot of Elvis material available when they began "Mondo Elvis," but they were surprised by the range and volume.

"There really is a lot of bad Elvis fiction out there," Mr. Peabody says, making a face. "It almost becomes cheesy science fiction, or 'I Married Elvis' kind of stuff."

"Elvis romance fiction," Ms. Ebersole interjects with a laugh.

'The Elvises of Madison County,' " muses Mr. Peabody. "There's something there, I think."

This is the second time the editors have assessed a pop-culture icon in this form. First was last year's "Mondo Barbie," a quirky little book about everyone's favorite doll -- or not-so-favorite, as it turned out.

"That was a dark book, a very violent book," says Mr. Peabody. "It was reflective of the feelings that a lot of young women had about the doll. The pieces show a lot of violence against her -- ripping her head off, that kind of thing."

He feels "Mondo Elvis" is a "much sadder book," to which Ms. Ebersole adds: "I see a lot of longing for lost innocence in this one. He started out so earnest and innocent, and then it all ate him up. His life becomes a tragic comedy."

"I think that Elvis had a terrible life in many ways," agrees Ms. Mee, a writer and actress who lives in Roanoke, Va. "I went to Graceland andto Tupelo, Miss. [his hometown], for the novel. I was fascinated all over again, especially thinking about the early Elvis. There is something so beguiling about him. The later Elvis is difficult. I just hate to see the pictures when he was so all puffed up."

Much of "The Girl Who Loved Elvis" comes from Ms. Mee's experiences growing up in Trion, Ga., in the late 1950s. "He became a symbol to me and the people in my hometown," she says. "He was someone from a low blue-collar culture -- even lower, really -- who was able to get out of the bottle."

Ms. Ebersole and Mr. Peabody are at work on a third "Mondo" book, but don't want to reveal the subject. "Our publishers asked us not to," Ms. Ebersole says apologetically, "though you could probably figure it out. There aren't too many people who warrant this attention."

"I voted for 'Mondo Barney,' " Mr. Peabody says, "but they turned me down."

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