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Somewhere in the middle of Elvis Presley’s passage from being young Elvis Aron in Tupelo, Miss., to being the most prominent bulge in the topography of our collective consciousness, something went terribly wrong. We have become comfortable with treating Elvis as the Great National Joke. Elvis sightings rank just below UFO abductions on the snicker scale. His rhinestone Vegas jumpsuits define kitsch for post-Elvis America. His prodigious addictions are well-chronicled for our amusement and enjoyment. And Elvis died for his sins. He hid them from his adoring public, suffering in private until his body was overwhelmed by his unquenchable appetites, and he diedslumping in prayer to the porcelain god.
P.F. Kluge, in Biggest Elvis, attempts to give Presley’s legacy a second chance. In doing so, he eschews the kind of back-to-the-future dimension-twisters concocted by many other writers (like Robert Rankin, whose novel Armageddon: The Musical concerns alien television producers who travel back in time to prevent the young Elvis from entering the Army). Kluge has written a relentlessly human tale about a trio of Elvis impersonators performing in Olongapo, the Philippines, a town teeming with seedy night life, situated near a U.S. naval base.
Kluge meets the Elvis mythology head on and wrestles it to human size, submerging it into his story in a way that only increases the mystical effect, the feeling that we are reading the story of the Second Coming. Though his first name is Peter, not Tom, the manager of the three wannabes (and the uncle of two of them) is named Colonel Parker. The bar that provides the stage is named Graceland. The bar girls of Graceland, who make their money servicing the men of the American fleet (along with the occasional tourist), count among their number a woman named Priscilla. But no, she doesn’t find love with any of the three Elvises; the synchronicity ends just before it becomes slavishly imitative of the nonfiction version of Presley’s life.
The device of having three Elvises allows Kluge to present Elvis’ life in three simultaneous acts: Chester Lane is the callow 1950’s version, Baby Elvis; he is naive and wide-eyed. Chester’s innocence helps him recognize his first love in this most unlikely of places, a town filled with women of the cash ‘n’ carry variety. His brother Albert is the punk, the bitterly sarcastic movie star, Dude Elvis. Albert refuses to take the Elvis phenomenon without a grain of salt, forever insisting that he’ll leave the act for potential movie stardom the first chance he gets. He heads off to Manila on the weekends, making throwaway action flicks for Graceland’s owner, Baby Ronquillo. The Biggest Elvis of the title, Professor Ward Wiggins, is a numb divorcé, a wandering academic bored with teaching on Guam and searching for meaning in a life spent bouncing around the globe. Thus Kluge personifies the King’s life in its three main phases and gathers them together for another roll of the dice.
Wiggins comes into the act with a reverence for the task of channeling Presley as the doomed Elvis, showing the results of the performances that preceded his. But as time passes, Wiggins becomes subsumed; the nutty, overweight, itinerant professor comes to believe that he was meant all along for the Elvis act: “[S]omething started happening when Elvis came to Olongapo. Every night I felt it, that sense of something impending, something that was headed my way and I didn’t have to do anything but wait for it,” he says.
As Graceland’s act grows in renown and the club begins to attract curious customers from Manila and tourists from across the Pacific Rim, attention begins to breathe life into Olongapo, heretofore a hopeless mud pit of a town, a malignant outgrowth of the last vestiges of American imperialism.
In Olongapoas everywhereElvis becomes an icon, a religion. Graceland is its church, Biggest Elvis its preacher; he prepares feasts for the bar girls and the people of Olongapo, and the locals bring their children to Biggest Elvis to be blessed. He becomes so popular that he starts stealing customers from the Catholic Church, which worries the town priest. Ronquillo is concerned that she will lose her flock to Elvis; because of the Elvis act, the girls of Graceland begin to unearth their buried self-respect and begin to visualize the better life that had previously only existed for them in shapeless fantasies. In the same way that the American masses have taken Elvis away from the music industry and made him their own, Biggest Elvis frees the proles of Olongapo from their institutional bonds, liberating their minds from the slaveries of capitalism and church. Ultimately, circumstances swirl together to propel the Elvis act away from Graceland toward the something that Biggest Elvis is waiting forthe final dramatic performance, the ultimate sacrifice.
Kluge constructs an intricate tale, distributing the storytelling duties among his chorus of characters, bouncing back and forth among them in a way that illuminates every setting by providing each character with a first-person travelogue of distinct paths that all converge in Olongapo, flowing seamlessly from Wiggins’ inspired prose to Dude’s sneering putdowns to a bar girl’s stilted, Tagalog-flavored English and back again, each voice peeling back another layer of the story. The technique gives the reader a chance to look through Elvis’ eyes into his own mirror. By giving each Elvis a chance at the narrator’s microphone, Kluge brings the Elvis saga full circle, providing us with some intriguing Elvis what-if permutations. We get the lost, bloated Elvis beginning his career as a performer, discovered in a dive on Guam; we get the young Elvis, replete with charming naiveté, at the end of his performing days. This multiplicity of talking heads could lead to chaos, but in Biggest Elvis it rings true, providing the tension without which the narrative might fall flat.
Yes, Elvis works in strange and mysterious ways. Biggest Elvis is more about its own characters than it is about Elvis the headliner, the icon, the franchise. But in shrinking the legend, Kluge humanizes Elvis Presley, diverting our attention from the rhinestones and glitter to the soul of the man, and the men who portray him and who give him another chance to make things right. CP