Applause that comes thundering with such force you might think the audience merely suffers the music as an excuse for its ovations.
— Greil Marcus , “Elvis: Presliad,” Mystery Train (1976)
Elvis stands in popular culture a singular force whose persona like Whitman’s permits contradictions and provokes an urge to make myths. In Elvis Presley: Hero with a Thousand Faces, Susan MacDougall elucidates several mythic archetypes that recall Elvis’s life. Unfortunately as close as his life (from his poignant rise to his baffling surrender to decadence) resembles the mythic cycle, it is incomplete without his apocryphal resurrection. Recently Don Cosacarelli’s film, Bubba Hotep, demonstrated the completion of the cycle with a superb blend of humor, pathos and action. This movie allowed for a genuine catharsis for some of the unresolved emotional energy latent in popular culture about the broken cycle.
Chasing Elvis attempts to demonstrate a completion of the cycle with similar dignity by turning the singer into a robber who attempts to save an illegitimate son’s life from a poverty worsened by a heart condition. However Chasing Elvis lacks the gravitas to permit the tabloid fueled stories from being anything more than a convenient marketing strategy for a fairly typical detective story. At most Marcel has tried to adopt the myth of Elvis as the impetus for the unquestioned victory of masculine heterosexuality over the conniving wiles of women and the feinting hysterics of gay men.
Marcel imagines that Elvis faked his own death, became a clumsy Robin Hood-style robber who was able to sire a “true” male heir, Obediah, who inherited his father’s musical gifts and authority of presence. Obediah, both a father and widower, is the pinnacle of masculine righteousness. The marriage and siring a child prove his masculinity beyond a doubt. He has suffered — having coped with a heart condition and lost a wife; having abandoned medical school to become the sheriff of his hometown; he has protected his daughter, having repulsed the female protagonist’s advances until a tentative pair bond can be formed.
Obediah is, of course, foiled by the only “gay” character, a blushing pre-Stonewall, closet-cased professional bachelor who has ambiguous longings but is innately virginal and asexual. This character is prone to exclamations like, “Oh God! Everyone knows I’m gay?” and is also a prime target for Big Foot to rape. But later is cured of his queer tendencies by a barely legal prostitute. This “gay” character reveals a deep misunderstanding with contemporary culture. With the vast population of the world, it is plausible this type of man exists, but for Marcel to presume supposedly sophisticated city folk would only be familiar with a non-sexual man as a homosexual is deeply depressing. This character seems only to exist to make a comment on the importance of heterosexuality and an argument that only a straight male is capable of having a valid identity.
But Marcel is also an author who presents the career of a tabloid journalist who writes about Big Foot as one that could not function without an expense account.
If there were more distinguishing features in Marcel’s world from our own, I could have possibly accepted his assertions as an alternative reality. Instead, he clumsily chucks outlandish details into a banal and quotidian setting and expects that we will accept it. The narrative, the characters, the premise of the book could hang together both poignantly and compellingly if the author’s hand had been more delicate and deft. The slightest critical engagement with Chasing Elvis causes these aspects of the book to collapse. The critical engagement necessary to cause the book to crumble like wet toilet paper is not even dependent on semi-intellectualism; if one has ever observed the world we live in, then the book is undermined. It is not even possible for us to look as the book as a comedy, parody or farce; its self-importance, the innate claim of the supposed emotional impetus of the heroine and Obediah, prevent this interpretation.
Marcel relies on the assumed power of heterosexual masculinity, mediated only by the vindictiveness of women to propel his story. Too often we see the author’s hand placing convenient bits of narrative together as he tries to reinforce a virulent, reactionary straight culture through a fetishism of Elvis. He ultimately adds nothing to the Elvis mythos. His words plod over the pages promising some new connection with the King, but fail. His words lack even a true sentimentality for the loss of an icon or even for the loved ones. Chasing Elvis leaves the reader with only one truly valid question: if you throw the name of the highest grossing dead celebrity on the cover of your book, can you trick people into buying it?