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.