Ben, an angst-filled, half-Jewish college graduate from suburban Buffalo, suffers from the type of listlessness familiar to us from the Broadway musical Avenue Q. In Micah Nathan’s new novel Losing Graceland, rejuvenation comes not from puppet-sex or Gary Coleman but from a long drive through the backwoods of America with a mysterious old man, who may or may not be “The King.”
He’s John Barrow to some, an Elvis impersonator to most, but once the avuncular and magisterial old man is on stage, he draws into his orbit middle-aged women, biker gangs, and teenage hookers. The spell still works. Nathan has the right elements in this slim novel. Drawing from the rich history of Elvis Presley and keeping his characters travelling through the back roads of America, he cleverly keeps the reader yearning to know Barrow’s true identity. When the old man throws down rolls of bills to waitresses at roadside diners and croons in small town karaoke bars, we want to believe he is Elvis, but when he negotiates with a half-Thai hooker for pharmaceuticals and gets into fights with construction foremen, we begin to wonder anew. Elvis alive and living in suburban Buffalo is a conceit hard to swallow, but the idea of Mr. Presley hiding in plain sight as an Elvis impersonator is a stroke of genius. It allows Nathan to tap into and play with the rich seam of popular culture that is the hagiography of The King.
Losing Graceland is a novel of lost souls and a lost America. Ben agrees to drive the old man because he wants money to run away to Amsterdam. The old man wants to be driven to Memphis because a gossip rag has reported the kidnapping of his grand-daughter. Such slivers fuel the larger-than-life actions of this narrative. While the old man is a mystery, Ben, as the naïf young man, acts as the reader’s proxy. He alternates between believing and questioning the myth, mirroring our hopes and doubts. But his back story is no less glib: a father crushed to death against a hot-dog cart, a mother who talks to her dead husband, and a pathetic love affair with a high-school man-killer. Nathan is a clever writer able to pull in narratives and references from around the world to populate his suburban narrative. Only in America can two men wide apart in age and upbringing rip words like “Kundalini” and “Hara” from their cultural contexts for a conversation about a union brawl. But the distinctness of such moments is lost because they recur often in these pages. It’s as if all the characters are reading from the same psalm book when talking to each other.
Nathan’s prose is slick like the writing in a stand-up comedy act. Laugh-out-loud moments are juxtaposed with lip-biting ones. I turned some pages feverishly to know the fates of these characters. The climax of the novel brings together most of the cast at an Elvis Tribute Contest in the Little Valley Convention Center in Tennessee. From the moment the old man walks into a Denny’s in a bathrobe to the mayhem that follows his performance, the writing in these pages had me rolling on the floor and turned my knuckles white as I tried not to lose my place in the prose. The warmth of rip-roaring ensemble scenes buoyed me through the lacklustre intimate scenes as Nathan draws his novel to a close. The old man gets a foot in the door of his granddaughter’s home in Memphis. Ben loses control of the car and crashes into a ditch but manages to scrape into Graceland.
In the end, some mysteries remain mysterious, but this being an American novel, we leave Ben on a high note in Amsterdam wishing for something “Bigger than the world. Bigger than anything he knew.”
There is much in this novel to please readers, and fans of Elvis and residents of small-town America will wink at several sections of this book with knowing smiles. And as with the musical Avenue Q, this joyride through suburban and pop-culture America entertains with fast numbers, seamless scene changes, and memorable tunes. But reading a book is not the same as sitting in a darkened theatre. An off-Broadway reader who wants a critical history and analysis of this period of American history in addition to a slick story must look elsewhere, for this novel is pure entertainment.