An intoxicating tale that’s simultaneously gaudy and exquisite.

THE LAND OF GRACE

A satirical novel about a religious cult built around the worship of Elvis Presley. 

Doyle Brisendine grew up in a small city in West Texas, largely raised by his grandmother. He was a lonely child without any notable talents, but he dreamed of going into show business as an alternative to a life of humdrum labor. He also inherited his grandmother’s (and absentee mother’s) infatuation with Elvis. After a stint as a pool hustler, Doyle puts together a traveling Elvis-impersonation act—the “King of Kings Elvis Tribute”—and after a newspaper reporter writes an article about him, he lands an agent and suddenly finds himself with semiregular work. He performs in Alabama for a largely female, geriatric crowd, and afterward, he’s invited out to dinner by Rhonda Price, a fetching young woman whom he’d normally consider out of his league. She drives him back to her gated community, which is weirdly reminiscent of Graceland and ominously guarded by a dour man named Uncle Vester. The next morning, Rhonda invites him to attend a religious ceremony that’s extravagantly devoted to Elvis: A woman referred to as “Mama” delivers a sermon from the “Book of Gladys” that asserts Elvis’ divinity, and an aging impersonator wows the crowd with musical numbers. Doyle stays a while with the Our Lady of TCB (“taking care of business”) crowd—they pay him generously for singing in church as Elvis, and he enjoys the respite from the lonesomeness of life on the road. However, when he tries to leave, he’s poked with a cattle prod, handcuffed to a bed, and subjected to a forced reading from Mama’s ersatz Bible.  Burrell’s first novel skillfully combines the macabre with the clownish. On the one hand, the cult, as portrayed here, is utterly ridiculous, as it’s essentially a maniacal fan club that transforms its members’ celebrity crush into a rhapsodic spirituality. Everyone in the cult plays a theatrical role, drawn from Elvis’ real life, in a laboriously staged effort to replace the disappointment of cult members’ reality with one of imaginative fantasy. “And our King lives,” one character says. “Not just in our hearts but in the flesh. We see him onstage every week.” However, the author tempers the humor with descriptions of the group’s ghoulishly nefarious practices, including kidnapping and murder; teenage girls are compelled to sleep with “Elvis”—or his troop of apostles—as a rite of purification, and the resident physician, Dr. Nick, is revealed to be a known sexual predator. That said, Burrell’s story can also be marvelously subtle, as the whole narrative hinges on the differences between Mama’s crazed idolatry of Elvis and Doyle’s own lifelong fandom. In both cases, the legendary performer is seen as a source of meaning and solace—a fount of spiritualized hope. Overall, the book artfully asks probing questions about the basic human need for mythology of whatever kind and about the point at which the tensile cord of innocent fascination snaps.

An intoxicating tale that’s simultaneously gaudy and exquisite.

Pub Date: June 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-60489-207-9

Page Count: 255

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2018

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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