A noted fiction writer (Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail, 2001, etc.) applies a bracing working-class sensibility and a native understanding of Elvis Presley’s southern roots to the familiar tale of his meteoric career.
Penguin Lives are not usually based on primary sources, and Mason acknowledges as her main reference Peter Guralnick’s definitive two-volume biography (Last Train to Memphis, 1994; Careless Love, 1999). She didn’t need to do original research to feel close to the King. Raised on a farm in Kentucky, the author absorbed the same diverse musical influences, from R&B to gospel to opera. “When he emerged with his own startling, idiosyncratic singing style, we recognized its sources,” she recalls. “Elvis was great, so familiar—and he was ours!” It wasn’t just a musical heritage they shared. Mason, who has written about her own feelings of inferiority as a country girl attending the University of Kentucky in Lexington, nails the opposing drives that sent a polite mama’s boy onstage to drive girls wild with his gyrations. “Elvis was born into the mind-set of poverty,” she reminds us: “the deference toward authority and the insolent snarl underlying it.” This instinctive understanding is particularly helpful in addressing the thorny question of Presley’s loyalty to Colonel Parker, whose focus on the fast buck played a major role in his artistic decline. Elvis and his parents knew the Colonel was a con man, Mason believes; they wanted someone unscrupulous to “maneuver among the bankers, lawyers, company executives . . . because they knew the big dudes would just stomp on them.” Her take on Presley’s drug use as a means of suppressing his insecurities is similarly convincing. Readers looking for evocative descriptions of the King’s boundary-smashing music will do better with Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train or Dave Marsh’s Elvis, but Mason’s plain prose and blunt opinions are the perfect vehicles to convey his utterly American life.
Although the complexities of Elvis’s character and his place in American culture can’t be entirely explicated with such brevity, Mason grasps the essentials with perception and passion.