Elvis in the Morning
by William F. Buckley, Jr. (2001)
My mother-in-law loves Elvis. People know this and anytime the occasion calls for her to receive a gift, it is often an Elvis-themed one. And every time I hear of her getting something Elvis-related, I rub my hands together; surely, one day, she will pass these things on to me. This is what happened once when she told me to take whatever books I wanted from her book shelf as she is not much for reading. I took home with me Coal Miner’s Daughter, Connie Francis’ autobiography and a couple of interesting Elvis books. One was Larry Geller’s book (great for reference) and the other was the curious title we are looking at today.
William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008) was an “American public intellectual” and author. He hosted almost 1500 episodes of Firing Line, “the longest-running public affairs show in American television history with a single host”. Buckley wrote scores of non-fiction books but what I find fascinating is that he was also a prolific novelist. Where this fictionalized novel he wrote about Elvis came from I do not know. I think this makes this book a real curiosity.
In Elvis in the Morning, bespectacled Orson Killere (pronounced “Kill-AIR”; Elvis calls him “Killer”) begins the story as a young child, the son of American Francie Killere and the late French resistance fighter Jean-Jacques Killere. Francie works for the military and is stationed in Germany at the same time Pvt. Presley arrives to do his tour of duty. On a trip to the American south to visit family, Orson sees Presley sing on television and he – like millions – is transfixed. Later at home, his love of the singer grows and the fact that he is stationed nearby is enchanting. Inspired by a Communist teacher and his talk about community property, Orson breaks into the PX to steal Elvis records to distribute to those who can’t afford them. He is caught and part of his sentence is that he cannot listen to Elvis music for a month. Presley hears of this odd punishment and decides to visit young Orson and sing for him personally. A friendship grows.
I used to scoff at this book seeing it on my mother-in-law’s shelf. I thought the author had appropriated the Presley name to sell his book. But it’s clever, what Buckley has done here. He has written a travelogue through the pages of the American century and he has simply added the interesting premise “what if?”. Interesting to think that this could actually have happened; surely Presley befriended people throughout his life, strangers he bought Lincolns for, etc. So, Buckley posits that here is one such meeting and this one happened to form a lasting relationship. But instead of the preposterous premise of young Orson becoming part of Presley’s entourage, Buckley simply has Orson live his own life – the fact that he actually knows Elvis Presley and calls him a friend is something that he keeps in his back pocket.
More what’s happening here is Buckley has issued a book that is a bit of On the Road and a bit of Forrest Gump as Orson rubs elbows with parts of American history. Not only does Orson meet and befriend Presley but he has a Coke with Barry Goldwater, accompanies the King to meet President Nixon and gets in on the ground floor of the computer industry. So instead of Orson joining Red West in warding off amorous autograph seekers we have a young man finding his own way – and one of his friends is the King of Rock & Roll.
Two of the most interesting plot points are that young Orson – ten years younger than Elvis – is close friends with a young Priscilla Beaulieu; in fact, little “Priss” is Orson’s sort of-girlfriend at first. Secondly, at one point in the mid-1960s, Orson is chosen as the perfect person – not of the immediate circle but still close to Elvis – to break the news to Presley that the soundtrack recordings are killing his career. He is also the one the boys call in to confront Presley about his drug use in the mid-Seventies. Fascinating when you think about it because I, for one, have many times imagined myself in this same role. I am a trusted friend of Elvis and spend some alone time with him counselling and encouraging him to break free of the mediocrity – and the Colonel – and focus for a while on his personal well being and mental health. To reset his compass to true north. So, I find this device of Buckley’s a totally legit one to build a book on.
Unfortunately, the book falls flat. It works as it touchingly depicts the tragic loss of a close friend but it fails in the two halves it presents; Orson’s story includes an adoption of communist attitudes that are never fleshed out – Buckley attempts a clever return to the communism angle late in the game – a wife who loses her memory when she gets in a wreck only to recover easily and a brief bout with cocaine that Orson beats quickly. The reader is not much invested in Orson and feels indifferent towards his successes or failures.
“Words were incapable of rendering Elvis, only Elvis could do that.”
The Elvis part of the book also leaves the reader apathetic. And it is really summed up by the above quote from the book. It is so hard for anyone to put words in Elvis Presley’s mouth and when Buckley does it’s nigh on impossible for the reader to believe Elvis really talked like that. I didn’t want to get too nit-picky on the facts that the author presents of Presley’s life and career – after all, this is an alternate history and if Buckley is fictionalizing a part of history, than perhaps other things will get tweaked, as well. To wit; Priscilla Presley is called “Priss”? Not that I’ve ever heard. In November of 1965, Elvis asks Orson if he has seen Frankie and Johnny, a film that was not released until March of ’66. The TV special known today as The ’68 Comeback Special is said to have aired in January of 1969, a month too late. But I feel we must accept as fun the book presenting a November ’75 gig in Vegas when Elvis sings songs like “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”, “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do” and most incredibly “Catchin’ on Fast” from Kissin’ Cousins! This I’ll allow as not a mistake on Buckley’s part – these songs were not part of the repertoire in 1975 – but maybe as a statement by the author that he would’ve liked Elvis to have performed these songs live. I can think of a list myself that I might sneak into a work of fiction. I should note that, in his acknowledgements, Buckley cites some of his sources, among them Peter Guralnick’s seminal two-part biography of Presley. Buckley calls Guralnick “the consummate scholar and unmatched chronicler of Elvis Presley and the Presley phenomenon” so Buckley gets points for that.
Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, I now understand and appreciate revisionist history and so the time was right to tackle Elvis in the Morning. Sadly, I found that William F. Buckley, Jr., the novelist, turns a phrase in a very ordinary way. I found his storytelling unremarkable which is surprising considering his status as a brilliant linguist. Quite a novelty, though, this book and I certainly don’t regret reading it. If you stumble on it in the wild, pick it up but I wouldn’t go searching for it. If you do, begin your search – for this and any book – at AbeBooks.