The King in life and death

Monday Book Reviews

January 10, 1994|By Robin L. Reale

MONDO ELVIS: A Collection of Stories and Poems About Elvis. (( Edited by Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole. St. Martin's Press. 223 pages. $12.95.

HE'S everywhere.

Radio. Silver Screen. Just about anything with a surface.

My grandmother in New York has dedicated her guest room to him, with autographs and collectors' items kept in a glass case. Until its closing last fall, Miss Bonnie's Elvis Shrine and Literary Salon on Fleet Street in Baltimore sanctified him for more than a decade. And he's routinely spotted working in convenience stores and gas stations -- looking, of course, much as he did in 1977.

Dead now for 16 years (his 59th birthday would have been last Saturday), he is survived by a world in denial. From black velvet artists to the U.S. Postal Service, everyone wants a piece of the King.

The second in a planned trilogy, following the acclaimed "Mondo Barbie," this often backhanded tribute remembers what was and laughs at what has become of this American icon. He was "destroyed by our attention only to be resurrected by the media," editors write in a short introduction, and later add, "And there's nothing left for us to do but love him or hate him."

Here we do both.

Those not weakened by Elvis' snarl and gyrating hips will particularly enjoy the first half of the book. There's Eleanor Earle Crockett's opening line: "Pillows of flesh tumbled like ice loaded with mercury inside blue silk pajamas sticky with sweat as Elvis rolled toward the nightstand in those last few frames of drug-induced sleep." There's David Wojahn's satirical poem, "The Assassination of Robert Goulet, as Performed by Elvis Presley: Memphis, 1968." And William McCranor Henderson's post-show description of the exhausted, overweight, gun-carrying singer. Elvis is portrayed here as a victim of his own wealth and fame. (He once flew halfway across the country for a banana sandwich.)

Are we supposed to feel sorry for the man behind the image when we're overwhelmed from the start by his insecurity, depression, addictions and obsessive-compulsive behavior? So Elvis had some problems. Enough, already.

This isn't what's still keeping the King alive decades after his death. It's the image of a rock 'n' roll legend in blue suede shoes that we celebrate, not the addicted singer tired of the spotlight. Midway through, we put the man to rest and embrace the myth: Elvis, the immortal.

In Michael Wilkerson's "The Elvis Cults," a just-released American hostage learns that his wife and son have joined a network of Elvis devotees living in Indiana. "Elvism had become the second largest religion in America. The cults . . . ranged from the quiet, meditative 'singalikes' of Wisconsin and Minnesota to the more severe, cloistered 'lookalikes' of Elvisville, portions of Illinois and the Deep South. All Elvists were required to visit Memphis once during their lifetimes. Each day they turned toward that city and sang His lyrics; the songs varied from cult to cult."

In the 17-page monologue, "Sproing!" by Eri Makino, an oppressed housewife turns to Elvis' music for comfort and self-esteem.

And in "The Annunciation," Baltimorean Rafael Alvarez gives both Elvis and a self-serving teen-ager another chance at life. He writes: "In the brief moment before the Great Bolewicki Depression Clock swept past the end of the millennium, the restless spirit of Elvis Presley returned to Earth through the ripe womb of a 15-year-old Jewish virgin named Ruthie . . ."

Let's face it: The man who lived and the man we've created are one only in name. This anthology is revealing in its description of both. It's unapologetic as Elvis struggles with stardom, exultant as his popularity soars in death.

Fans may feel betrayed by its often brutal honesty, but at least they should find it a refreshing respite from today's national Elvis mania.

More than 2 million people visit Graceland each year. Elvis impersonators are box-office hits. And his name has greater recognition than Bill Clinton's. Elvis' desire to escape fame is denied him even in death, and "Mondo Elvis" makes it clear that he'll not soon be left alone.

As King Henry IV said, "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown."

Robin L. Reale is a Baltimore writer. Rafael Alvarez will be reading and signing copies of his story "The Annunciation" from "Mondo Elvis" at 1 p.m. Jan. 16 at Borders, York Road in Towson.

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