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Jonathan Lowy’s introduction to Elvis Presley was belated but intense. In 1977, Lowy, then a high schooler in McLean, Va., decided he wanted to learn how to drive in just two days. As it happened, the days he chose for his course immediately followed Elvis’ death. “I spent 12 hours a day with the instructor listening to the radio, which was nothing but accounts of Elvis’ life,” Lowy recalls. “I learned more [about Elvis] in those two days than in the previous 16 years. It made a great impression on me.”
It made such an impression, in fact, that when Lowy moved on to Harvard University, he wrote his undergraduate thesis about Elvis as a “hero of global-village culture.” Lowy’s thesis—based in part on old newspaper accounts of Elvis’ rise as a young performer and on letters to the editor from fans and foes alike—argued that Americans projected onto Presley, even as early as the ’50s, their concerns about wide-ranging social changes. “My argument,” Lowy says, “was that Elvis was performing one of the classic functions of a hero, going back to the classical ages—someone who comes to symbolize” the zeitgeist of his era.
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After Harvard, Lowy became a lawyer; now, at 39, he tries cases against gun manufacturers for the Washington-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. But Lowy put his thesis to good use earlier this year, when he published his first novel, Elvis and Nixon. The book re-creates—through a mix of fact and (well-researched) fiction—the days surrounding the bizarre moment when the two giants met in the Oval Office, a meeting arranged so that Nixon could give Presley the special drug agent’s badge he craved.
“The events in the book that are true are rather extraordinary. In fact, you probably couldn’t get away with them [as a writer] if you had made them up,” Lowy says. “However, they left a lot of blank spaces that needed to be filled in—and that could only be done in a fictional way. The largest of those blank spaces was what was going on in Elvis’ head.”
Not only was Presley drug-addled, Lowy relates, but he appears to have sought out Nixon as an ally against new and radical forces. In politics, those forces included the anti-war movement and the Black Panthers; culturally, they were epitomized by the Beatles, who had surpassed Presley as the symbol of youthful rebellion.
Though several reviews of Elvis and Nixon have been positive, Nixon scholar David Greenberg, writing in the Washington Post, called Lowy’s views “conventionally liberal” and charged that the author “patronizes” his two protagonists. Lowy firmly disagrees, saying that Nixon “comes across better than he does in many biographies. I had some personal empathy for him, and I think that’s portrayed in the book.”
Lowy says he actually enjoyed one of the negative reviews, which appeared in the Boston Herald. Lowy found it amusing that the reviewer, Massachusetts novelist Alfred Alcorn, spent two of his seven paragraphs reminding readers of the horrors of ’60s-era Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, and Cambodia. With “infantile values” and “venom laced with hate,” Alcorn writes, Lowy shoots at “easy marks, ones that require little wit and less courage to take pot shots at.”
“The idea that I could get this guy’s temples throbbing—to get under his skin enough that he felt the same way he would have watching anti-war protesters 30 years ago—gives me great glee,” Lowy says. — Louis Jacobson