GRACELAND by Laura Kalpakian


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 There's something forced about Kalpakian's adequately written sixth book (Dark Continent, 1989, etc.)--a melodramatic novel that celebrates Elvis Presley as a cultural and spiritual icon. Joyce Jackson (born Rejoice Denby) is a welfare mother in the fictional town of St. Elmo, California, who displays an ``undue, unusual attachment to the late Elvis Presley.'' As her affluent caseworker from Laguna Beach learns, Joyce has substituted a religious devotion to Elvis for the fundamentalism of her oppressive youth. She truly believes that the naive rock-and-roller is her personal savior, and that she must carry out his nonmusical works as an emissary to the poor and afflicted. Part of her mission is the shrine on her front porch, known locally as ``Heartbreak Hotel.'' Into Joyce's life comes the uptight Emily Shaw, a rich girl biding her time until she marries her law-student boyfriend. From the get-go, Emily drops her professional demeanor in Joyce's presence, since the idolater refuses to fit the social-services mold: she's industrious, charitable, and a good mother to her daughters, Priscilla and Lisa Marie. She's also a welfare cheat, hiding income and arousing the attention of Emily's supervisor, the unsympathetic ``Large Marge,'' a grotesque and bitter woman bent on humiliation. We learn in flashbacks that the King's music saved Joyce from the nasty Fifties, just as he will save others over the course of this predictable novel. Emily will recognize the vapidness of her preordained life of luxury, and Joyce's ex will survive a motorcycle accident, only to return home. Emily's predecessor as Joyce's caseworker, the experienced and dedicated Sid Johnson, an unlikely Elvis fan, discourses on the singer's important cultural contribution. Everything works out okay here among those who acknowledge that Elvis ``died for us,'' and that his drug abuse only proved his humanity. As silly and superficial as the class analysis it advances, Kalpakian's sluggish narrative rocks as hard as the King on Quaaludes.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-8021-1474-1
Page count: 293pp
Publisher: Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1992


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