“Words were incapable of rendering Elvis,” observes Orson Killere, Presley’s fictional good pal, in William F. Buckley Jr.’s new novel about the King and his times. As luck would have it, nothing demonstrates the truth of Orson’s assertion as powerfully as Elvis in the Morning, which follows Orson and Elvis’s unlikely friendship from their first meeting in 1959, at an Army base in Germany, through Presley’s death in 1977. There’s ample and admirable literary precedent for using the elements that Buckley assembles here – a long-lasting, competitive friendship; icons of pop culture; the background of American politics in a tumultuous time – to craft a textured portrait of an era. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay did just that. But those stories had real feeling for the aspirations and vanities of the moments they portrayed. Buckley’s novel, by contrast, is embarrassingly superficial.
In fact, the patrician pundit isn’t interested in Elvis at all. In a recent interview, the author recalled that what he’d really wanted to do was a novel about “the appeal of the left in America in the late fifties and early sixties.” Buckley sees Elvis’s music as a “call to liberation” that gave young people of the time a sense that they should “do what they want to do and … resist conventional pressures to conform.”
Presley has certainly liberated Buckley – from the pressure to conform to conventional expectations of coherence in plot and character, all of which are blithely sacrificed to construct a narrative that demonstrates the error of Orson’s and Elvis’s nonconformist, lefty ways. Expelled from college after staging an inept demonstration, the idealistic Orson wanders around the West, hitching rides on freight trains, trying to adhere to his socialist principles, and getting assaulted and gang-raped by unshaven cowpokes – the inevitable cosmic punishment, one can only presume, for having been a campus activist. Then, in Utah, he meets and instantly, naturally, believably falls in love with a right-wing Mormon named Susan. Then they have Cokes with Goldwater. Then they get into a near-fatal car wreck, after which Susan suffers from terrible memory lapses. (So, it would seem, does Buckley. There are irritating discontinuities and inconsistencies here. Buckley writes very fast – and it shows.)
Eventually, a moral of sorts lumbers into view. Later in life, Elvis and Orson both have adulterous lapses and become addicted to drugs. For Buckley, the moral lapses are connected: They can all be pinned on loud pop music and all those “liberated” energies. Orson’s climactic insight is that the “do what you want” implicit in Elvis’s singing leads inevitably to “drug haze” and floozies. And indeed, while Elvis disintegrates into the famously bloated, pill-popping victim of the Dionysiac energies he has unleashed, Orson recovers and goes on to become a bigwig in the computer industry. Yeah, right. “How had Orson acquired his sense of the industry?” an investor wonders. Good question.
Any of this might have been bearable if Buckley had been interested in Elvis as a real person. Instead, he is indistinguishable from all the other characters. (Everyone in this book sounds the same.) As for the music, the best the author can do is offer lame clichés about the King’s “brand-new, hypnotic beat.” And he has no feel whatsoever for the mood or psychology of sixties student activism. Buckley has declared that Orson was “bent on disrupting college life in the protest against – whatever the left protests against.” Elvis in the Morning would have been far more effective as an exploration, even a critical or parodic one, of the “appeal of the left” if the author had made even a modest attempt to understand what that appeal might have been.
It isn’t every day you get to read a novel in which a man’s soul is saved by Hewlett-Packard. But precisely because everything in Buckley’s novel has been so artificially constructed and arranged to lead up to this moment, you don’t believe it for a minute. In the end, Elvis in the Morning reminds you of nothing so much as Elvis very late in his Las Vegas twilight: manic energy and a lot of cheap tricks expended on the creation of an illusion that only the most deluded denizens of the heartland would buy into.
Elvis in the Morning
By William F. Buckley Jr.
Harcourt; 328 pages; $25.