“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.”
What we have here is a knstlerroman in reverse: the story of a young man’s journey from an idealistic and artistic sensibility into the welcoming arms of bourgeois complacency. We watch as the Elvis-adoring Orson goes from budding socialist-redistributionist to frustrated campus activist to Kerouacian drifter before finally settling down with a Goldwater-worshipping wife and some handy Hewlett-Packard stock options. His normative trajectory contrasts with that of his gyrating buddy, whose sad trip from youthful rock ‘n’ roll liberator to bloated Las Vegas caricature is already well-documented. Both characters have rough rides, but Orson--who eventually converts to capitalism in the early ‘70s, just as the computer-era dawn is breaking--manages to corral and ultimately contain his demons. Elvis, spiraling out of control after years in the limelight and a string of career missteps, needs Orson’s help.
The transmogrification of Elvis might have made a compelling metaphor for a novel about American excess during the 1960s and 1970s. Buckley senses the potential of his setup but, after begging us to suspend our disbelief, he rewards us not by applying his customary wit and erudition to the events of the story but instead by hurtling toward the end, as though he couldn’t wait to finish. He nibbles at meaningfulness like an antsy child faced with a plate of broccoli.
It’s not difficult to envision Buckley typing with his left hand while frantically flipping through the pages of an Elvis biography with his right hand, hoping that readers won’t mind the weak characterizations, disorienting shifts in point of view, silly dialogue (see the beginning of this review) or gaping narrative lacunas as long as he gets all of his names and dates correct. (Major events in Orson’s universe, like life-threatening car crashes and the births of children, are mentioned ex post facto and obliquely. Meanwhile we are inundated with trivia about insignificant minor characters.) When Aug. 16, 1977, finally arrives, one can almost hear the author breathe a sigh of relief; it’s the same sigh that issues from the slack jaw of a college freshman as he completes a term paper on the morning it’s due.
There’s a brief passage in “Elvis in the Morning” that’s genuinely poignant and shows just how thoughtful a writer Buckley can be when he slows down and tends carefully to his characters. Orson is talking to his wife one morning after an automobile accident has left her with only foggy memories of their life together. As she makes tentative conversational gambits about a vacation they may or may not have taken, her husband is drawn into a tender hopeful game that requires him to respond affirmatively really knowing what he’s affirming.
It’s actually a beautiful moment, a vignette that speaks volumes about the powerful mysteries of love. Buckley is really writing here, not just typing. The difference is as stark as the one between the young, beautiful, revolutionary Elvis and the grotesque self-parody he became.