Goldman's biography of Lenny Bruce succeeded largely because he wrote it so much from inside Bruce's world. But this is a...



Goldman's biography of Lenny Bruce succeeded largely because he wrote it so much from inside Bruce's world. But this is a very different story. With low-brow hero Elvis, you see, Goldman is clearly on the outside looking in--to sneer and deride, to debunk the ""Elvis Myth"" (which is surely a straw man by now), to deplore the squandered potential, even to revel in the degradations. It's not a pretty sight, with some added obnoxiousness from Goldman's slangy, desperately hip, Tom Wolfeish style. Nonetheless--and despite the fact that most of Goldman's revelations have come out, more or less, in other exposÉs--this is by far the strongest of the Elvis books: fairly convincing in its blunt psychology, incisively analytical on the music, and often compelling in its compulsively detailed, you-are-there evocations of Elvis at work and play. Starting with a portrait of fat, sick Elvis soiling himself in his grotesque manse and a sketch of venal manager Col. Tom Parker in Las Vegas, Goldman flashes back to tell the story chronologically. Papa was hillbilly Vernon (""stupid . . . greedy . . . spineless""). Mama was possessive Gladys, who raised Elvis on stories about a twin brother who died at birth--partial cause of what Goldman sees as Elvis' bad/good ""split personality."" And Goldman works especially hard to chart the musical influences (even a neighbor who played Jewish cantorial records!) on teen-loner Elvis in Memphis, then to accentuate the natural artistry in his early records--a sly, hard-rocking artistry which immature Elvis was happy to abandon for bland-pop commerce when the vile Colonel came along. (""The only thing that could have saved Elvis' soul at this point would have been to refuse, as the Beatles did, to take the easy, obvious way to success."") So: hit records, TV (though Goldman emphasizes radio as Elvis' medium), Hollywood movies--with an ""injurious"" two-year army interruption, perhaps arranged by the Colonel ""to cut the King of Rock 'n' Roll down to size."" Even worse--his mother's death, removing his foundation and opening the way to utter debauch: voyeurism, drugs, overeating, teenage-fixated sex, total conversion to occultism, the creepy marriage to teenage Priscilla, guns. Then--late-'60s comeback via a TV special (minutely detailed) and Las Vegas, but soon followed by a descent into ""homicidal madness,"" infantilism, and ""drug invalidism"" (thanks to obliging M.D.s), all triggered by anonymous death threats and Priscilla's infidelity. ""Had Elvis Presley been made of better stuff than comic-book fantasy . . . the disaster of his divorce might have straightened him out instead of reducing him to a helpless infant."" Don't, therefore, look to Goldman for tears and violins as Elvis crumbles to a sordid demise (actual cause still unknown). Don't look to him for documentary scrupulousness or an aura of objectivity either: one gets the distinct impression that the depiction of every living person here is colored by his/ her degree of cooperation with the author. (The Colonel wouldn't talk at all.) But, if spotty overall, this ia densely vivid in its episodic reconstructions and roughly persuasive in its general, depressing drift. For those eager to see the King in utterly pathetic ""boy-man"" undress, then: a guaranteed turn-on.

Pub Date: Nov. 8, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: McGraw-Hill

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1981