Imperial Bedrooms

Karal Ann Marling

Graceland: Going Home With Elvis

Harvard University Press

           ELVIS IS TOO big for this sentence. Too big for this paragraph, for this page. Elvis is too big for this paper. A national archive of Elvis located in a series of connected warehouses in Memphis, Tennessee, could not hold the collected material of his life. The great records. All the other records. The quickie movies. The exact recipe for a deep-fried peanut butter, jelly, and bacon sandwich that once sent Elvis on a $14,000 late night aerial jaunt to Denver, Colorado. The bottomless, rhinestone-studded decline, from zenith to... zenith. The luminescent body suits and the belt buckles of real gold. Elvis the Cadillac collector. Elvis the sometime home pharmacist. Elvis the assassin of televisions. Elvis the pelvis. Hillbilly Elvis. Elvis the annual academic conference. Elvis the godhead. Elvis the industry.

           So it has come to pass that the attempt to chronicle the enormity of Elvis's existence has assumed all the status of the equally unfathomable "great American novel." Elvis has become "Elvis." The journey between those twinned Elvi is the subject of Karal Ann Marling's masterful entry into Elvisology, Graceland: Going Home With Elvis, from the shotgun shack that daddy Vernon built with his own hands to the house on the hill, Graceland.

           In this volume, Elvis is not just an actor in his own life, but the costumer, propman, set designer--and in the kind of transcendental act that once allowed Elvis to contemplate "why God has chosen me to be Elvis Presley," he is his own audience as well. A professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, Marling constructs a meandering biography out of the domestic theater of Elvis. Much like the set designer in Nathaniel West's Day of the Locust, she rifles through the strata of discarded facades in the Presley studio back lots: the log cabin, the Faulknerian mansion, Tara, the Hollywood show house, the suburban ranch. Home, it has been said, is where the heart is. Home, too, is where the myth is. And so Marling gives us Elvis, the customized "forty foot, double-decker Greyhound bus;" Elvis, the Las Vegas penthouse Imperial Suite; Elvis, the motorcade.

           The road to Memphis began in East Tupelo, where Vernon and his brother Vester built "a wood frame house, perched on a pile of rocks." The structure was "precisely thirty feet long... and fifteen feet wide, a 2:1 ratio maintained in the proportions of the windows, too." Marling takes some giggly symbolic shortcuts--as in "Two plus one equals three. Each room has three windows: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph the Carpenter; Elvis, Gladys, and Vernon." But a few pages later, the author affectingly depicts the emotional core of the scene, with Elvis, on the cusp of becoming himself, returning in a "pale green '42 Lincoln Zephyr" with four bald tires to contemplate his stillborn twin Garon and his own hazy destiny: Why did God choose me to be Elvis Presley? Marling then updates the scene to the present; the "snowy white" shack has been scrubbed to Hollywood standards, the interior injected with period knicknackery. A memorial chapel, connected by a concrete walkway, offers a framed view of the birthplace, "as if to suggest a silent conversation between tourist, Elvis, and the ineffable."

           This first chapter bears the blueprint for the book: a schematic progression from the architecture of the building to the architecture of the image. We meet Max Fuhrbringer, the designer responsible for Memphis's Colonial revival style and Graceland itself, who later, as Municipal Housing Administrator, oversaw the Lauderdale Courts projects where the Presleys first approached a middle class life. We see Elvis at the gates of Graceland lining his driveway with blue lights like a runway, inviting stray guests into pink jeeps for the half-mile ride to the mansion. Marling saves her greatest enthusiasm for Graceland's legendary Jungle Room, with its "wookie-fur lampshades" and Tiki furniture; in her rendering, the room is "Polynesian Primitive, Early Goona-Goona... Tahitian Provincial." It is Krakatoan, Tarzan-esque, "Mogambu with a hint of Blue Hawaii."

           Marling's scrupulously researched (and also hilarious) cultural analysis recalls that of like-minded heroes Tom Wolfe and Greil Marcus--although to this reader, she seems more generous than the former, and more stylish than the latter. Many sentences without verbs. (Also like Wolfe, she dabbles in illustration; let's just say that Marling is as good an artist as Elvis is an actor, and leave it at that.) Though the definitive Book of Elvis may have already been written (in Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis, the first volume of his two-part biography, where Elvis swaggers through the pages, full of life, volition, and talent). Still, Marling's Graceland: Going Home With Elvis is a brilliant achievement. Elvis, as the saying goes, may have left the building, but the author shows us how we are all now living in Graceland.

 
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