Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 347 (1/16) -- The King by Rich Koslowski

Other people's tastes in music is inexplicable. How can P be such a huge Abba fan when she has good taste enough to also be a huge Beatles fan? Why does M listen to '70s dance-pop incessantly? And what possibly explanation can there be for Justin Bieber?

Elvis Presley is one of the canonical Great Musicians of the rock era; we've all heard, and recognize, a lot of his work, even if his music isn't something we particularly care about. He also had a massive streak of grandiosity -- not unlike a thousand other musicians, true -- but he was big enough, early enough to make all of the grandiose talk plausible. And, of course, he's dead, which is key to any mythology: it's so much easier to spin stories about someone who isn't around to contradict them anymore. Though any self-respecting mythology has to have at least one resurrection in it. So there have been many stories -- a great number of them putatively non-fictional -- about that mythological Elvis, and what happened to him after he did, or didn't, die on that Graceland toilet in August of 1977.

The King is one of them: a graphic novel about Elvis Presley, faith, and doing the work that you were "meant" to do. It's mostly about one man -- Paul Erfurt, a formerly-successful tabloid journalist who tried to make the leap to legitimate work and failed -- interviewing "The King," a Vegas Elvis impersonator in 2005 who claims to be Elvis himself, back from the grave. The King has become hugely popular and a media icon in the six months since he appeared -- as so often happens in stories about creative people, by storytellers who like to forget or elide the long, hard work that it takes to be successful in any creative field -- and Time magazine, among many others, craves his secret story. The King, though, will only speak to Erfurt, whose specialty, back in the day, were stories about the unlikely and unbelievable post-mortem adventures of Elvis.

So Erfurt interviews The King, who says the usual grandiose and nebulous things that all cult leaders and charlatans do, and who insists that he's both Elvis and a literal God. The King's motley band of hangers-on have their own colorful stories to add, but there's, of course, no evidence for anything. (In fact, the actual evidence, gathered by Erfurt and a private detective he's hired many times in the past, aims right at a far more prosaic explanation.) The King insists, again as all cult leaders do, that faith has nothing to do with evidence, and that the divine is numinous and all-present to those who are willing to believe. He also continually insists that Erfurt has to decide how to tell the story, using a judo-esque exerting-pressure-by-insisting-there's-no-pressure technique, trying to make the fact that he's a fraud and a charlatan Erfurt's fault.

Erfurt seems to be standing up to the attempted brainwashing pretty well, until a shocking act of violence at the climax of The King leads him to reconsider the slant of his article. Koslowski clearly had some sort of "follow your dreams" message in mind for the heart of The King, but it comes out more like "ignore reality and opportunities to keep doing dumb, minor things, if someone else thinks they're good." Erfurt was a failure at the beginning of the story, true, and he's at least published again at the end -- but he's now chasing entirely the wrong god if he wants to continue as a reporter. "Mystery" is fine for lots of people, but it's deadly to a reporter's sensibilities -- the whole point of reporting is never to accept vague answers, but to keep digging. A reporter whose every story ends "and why did it all happen? Damn if I know; it's another mystery" is not one whose career will continue in a happy direction.

So The King is an accomplished, excellently constructed, strongly written graphic novel with a deep message that I believe is the purest bunkum. Those of a more romantic or wistful disposition may get more out of than I did -- as, of course, will Elvis fans.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

No comments:

Post a Comment