By Mark Childress
Harmony. 566 pps. $19.95
WITH HIS third novel, "new Southern novelist" Mark Childress has set out to recreate the first 21 years in the life of Elvis Presley -- to write his gospel, so to speak, of the coming of the King. It's a potent, intriguing prospect. Presley was an astonishing paradox, a mama's boy who made sex a marketable commodity, a symbol -- a threat -- of masculine virility whose own emotional urges were suppressed and twisted. Like many children of poverty, he was never rich enough; like many charismatic idols, he was always lonely. A creature of the Bible Belt, he wallowed in his excesses; and in the face of unlimited sensual gratification, he debased and finally disfigured himself.
Childress is obviously fascinated by Presley, imagining his shyness, bluffing the confidence, feeling the adrenaline jolt, hearing the screams. He has pored over the clips, rewound the tapes. He has even fantasized about Presley -- but he has not once felt him. Faced with a legend larger than life, Childress has produced a cardboard King, one who occasionally lives for himself but who is more often left to the manipulations of the narrative. Instead of writing what he knows, Childress has written what he's been told. He has taken a myth, and made him less than a man.
Tender ("So intimate and powerful a story, it has to be fiction," reads the publisher's blurb) never once mentions Elvis Presley, and it never lets you forget that fact. The hero's name is Leroy -- as in "le roi," the King, but clumsy nevertheless -- Kirby, born in January 1935 in a two-room shack in Tupelo, Miss., the only survivor of a twin birth. He adores his mother, gets a guitar, enters a local talent contest, moves to Memphis, grows a DA, becomes a truck driver and records a fluke hit in a local studio. He goes on the Grand Ole Opry, the Ed Sullivan TV show, the silver screen . . . and then, at the height of his popularity, he is drafted into the Army and his mother dies.
In between conception and induction, Leroy discovers music, marijuana, flashy clothes, permanent waves, sex, Seconal and the apparently instantly degrading effect power has on the character. He does not discover the meaning of life (in fact, the issue never seems to have occurred to him) and he continues to marvel in a gratingly limp fashion about the "magical" effect his shaking a leg has on his audiences. It's not so much that he's unengaging as that he's unengaged.
In Ragtime fashion, Childress mixes in real names with invented ones, but jarringly, so that whatever narrative flow the "novel" has developed stops dead while the reader "recognizes" the original story. Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips, whose "Red Hot and Blue" show broke Presley's first hit, is given his own name; so is one side of that first record, "Blue Moon of Kentucky," but the other side is called "You Better Look Out for Me" instead of "That's All Right, Mama," and loaded up with imitation lyrics. "Mystery Train" becomes "Black Train," and "Jailhouse Rock" becomes the unlikely "Prisonhouse Blues." And when the Colonel Parker character, the hustling manager Sam Shepherd, is introduced, Childress grinds it in by having one of the band members marvel, "Man, he's bigger than Colonel Tom Parker."
And while the influence of the oral tradition is a broad boast of "young Southern writers," including the Alabama-born Childress, Tender displays a rather stilted grasp of dialogue, particularly white-trash Tupelo talk -- nearly grammatical and absolutely predictable. The most persuasive details are recreations of fact, clothes and buildings mostly, as well as things like the 35-foot papier-mache cow that a dairy company trots out to the annual state fair.
There is the obligatory black-folks scene, in which a runaway Leroy is picked up by Brother Love on the way to church and discovers the adrenaline high of Pentecostal gospel singing; but other than that the intricately two-layered Southern society of Mississippi and Tennessee is portrayed as merely naive. (Brother Love reappears toward the end as a shuffling old man looking for a handout.) The particularly tense position the Presley family actually inhabited -- as poor white trash, they lived on the teetering line between the contemptuous white and understandably reticent black communities -- left Presley with an even stronger psychological need to flaunt both his money and his garish taste. Yet it comes across here as simple Depression-era bluecollar poverty.
Nor is there more than the barest suggestion of the heavy black influence on the rockabilly movement, although Sun Records producer Sam Phillips (played here by Dan Tobias of Rocking Records) succinctly summed up Jerry Lee Lewis's piano style as a white right hand playing over a black left one. When Leroy's music is (briefly) assailed as "nigger music" and "un-Christian," it passes with as little resonance as a publicity ploy.
Most oddly, Childress begins the story with a potentially effective conceit -- that the Presley twin who died in childbirth reappeared as a secret second personality, a` la "The Other." But the mirror image veers inconsistently between providing emotional support and egging Leroy on to mischief; then, about halfway through, it vanishes, reappearing only (with the second "inner voice" of Leroy's dead mother) in the final scene. The voices do not figure in the prologue, which takes place in the full excess of Leroy's later career and sets his boyhood up as a long flashback.
Tender is getting the full Hollywood treatment from its publisher, which is providing Childress with a pink Cadillac to tour about in. He should take one of those cardboard photo dummies along for the ride; it might add some humor to a stiff situation.
Eve Zibart is the music critic of the Weekend section of The Washington Post.