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 best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with...

SUMMER ISLAND

Talk-show queen takes tumble as millions jeer.

Nora Bridges is a wildly popular radio spokesperson for family-first virtues, but her loyal listeners don't know that she walked out on her husband and teenaged daughters years ago and didn't look back. Now that a former lover has sold racy pix of naked Nora and horny himself to a national tabloid, her estranged daughter Ruby, an unsuccessful stand-up comic in Los Angeles, has been approached to pen a tell-all. Greedy for the fat fee she's been promised, Ruby agrees and heads for the San Juan Islands, eager to get reacquainted with the mom she plans to betray. Once in the family homestead, nasty Ruby alternately sulks and glares at her mother, who is temporarily wheelchair-bound as a result of a post-scandal car crash. Uncaring, Ruby begins writing her side of the story when she's not strolling on the beach with former sweetheart Dean Sloan, the son of wealthy socialites who basically ignored him and his gay brother Eric. Eric, now dying of cancer and also in a wheelchair, has returned to the island. This dismal threesome catch up on old times, recalling their childhood idylls on the island. After Ruby's perfect big sister Caroline shows up, there's another round of heartfelt talk. Nora gradually reveals the truth about her unloving husband and her late father's alcoholism, which led her to seek the approval of others at the cost of her own peace of mind. And so on. Ruby is aghast to discover that she doesn't know everything after all, but Dean offers her subdued comfort. Happy endings await almost everyone—except for readers of this nobly preachy snifflefest.

The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with syrupy platitudes about life and love.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-609-60737-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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