Pop culture and recent history are hogtied and transmogrified to smashing effect in Lowy’s imaginative and often hilarious first novel, based on an unlikely but factual 1970 occurrence: the then-Prez’s White House meeting with The King.
Chief Executive Richard Nixon frets and barks at aides, demanding to know how the latest bad Vietnam War news—the My Lai massacre and forthcoming trial of Lieutenant William Calley—will “play in Peoria.” Midlevel subordinate Max Sharpe dreams up a “get High on Life” campaign to publicize the administration’s halfhearted “war on drugs.” Meanwhile, the fabric of consensus is unraveling: a Pentagon officer’s son has been subpoenaed and will testify, about atrocities he witnessed, against Calley; a black amputee vet angrily rejects a presidential decoration, setting in motion a lame-brained FBI plot. And, in the heartland of Graceland, a gluttonous, pill-popping, paranoid Elvis Presley eludes his managers and hops a flight heading for Washington, hoping to be declared a Federal Agent at Large. With a plot like this (oddly enough, only some of it is invented), even a mediocre novelist couldn’t miss—and the savvy Lowy is already an accomplished one. He moves among several storylines effortlessly, concocting a darkly comic melodrama the likes of which we haven’t seen since The Manchurian Candidate—while simultaneously making Nixon at his most absurdly self-justifying seem virtually statesmanlike, and rendering Elvis’s manifold insecurities, appetites, and delusions with genuine pathos. Plus, beneath the book’s appropriately gaudy and cacophonous surface, there pulses a deadly serious implicit criticism of the mendacity and criminal resourcefulness of ignoble men who’ll do whatever is necessary to wield and retain power.
Is Lowy the next Richard Condon? We can only hope so. Oh, by the way, Elvis’s interpretation of the New Testament story of Jesus is not to be missed.