Mike Burrell of Birmingham has had for years the itch to write fiction, but practicing law was an impediment. Now retired, he has taken the master of fine arts in writing from Queens University, published a handful of stories and now produced his debut novel, “Land of Grace.”
“Land of Grace” begins as a comic romp, a lark, pleasing and goofy. As the word “grace” in the title hints, this is an Elvis Presley novel, but not a retelling in fiction of the Elvis biography, not exactly.
The protagonist, Doyle Brisindine, is an Elvis impersonator, an itinerant performer who earns a very modest living traveling from one small venue to the next. Doyle’s Elvis is first-rate, but there has been no big payday. On the road for seven years doing his “King of Kings Elvis Tribute,” he is considering giving up show business and seeking a regular job.
The novel opens at the AMVETS in fictional Willow Ruth, Alabama. Doyle is putting on his act for a small group of mainly old ladies — “white hair and wrinkled faces.” He opens with the music from “2001: A Space Odyssey” then goes to “That’s All Right, Mama,” moves through “See, See Rider” to “Burning Love,” “Teddy Bear” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” ending with “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
They scream and squeal, and this matters to Doyle because these oldsters, “The King’s contemporaries,” are “the only audience that could appreciate a truly artistic interpretation of Elvis’ persona.”
To Doyle’s surprise, the AMVETS club manager, Mr. Tom Parker, pays him much more than he expects, and introduces him to the young, beautiful and sexy Rhonda Price, who inexplicably wants to seduce Brisindine.
Lured by money and sex, neither of which Doyle has had much of lately, Brisindine is driven away with Rhonda in a 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood Special to visit a “faith-based” organization called TCB -- Taking Care of Business.
Out in the country, they pass through “a wrought iron gate shaped like an open hymnal with musical notes filigreed across its open pages” and enter a huge compound entirely surrounded by a high brick wall.
Slowly Doyle and the reader realize what is happening here. The house is an exact replica of Graceland: Music Room, Pool Room, TV Room, Jungle Room. All the people are in character. There are Uncle Vester, the Memphis Mafia, Red and Sonny, Priscilla, and especially Mama. The entire operation is a strict religious cult obedient to an inspired book, the Book of Gladys, which narrates the life, beginning with the details of Elvis’ humble birth and going on to the end.
“Satan tried to destroy him by having him drafted into the Army, and he rose to become a movie star. After he got lost and tempted in the Wilderness of Hollywood, he rose again in his ’68 comeback, and when everybody thought he’d died, he rose again. And again. Just like he said he would.”
Doyle is astonished, as we all would be, and the novel is, so far, hilarious. But slowly Burrell’s humor becomes darker, then vanishes altogether. These people are in deadly earnest. Once in, Doyle will become the King and be pampered like a king: the finest foods, drink, sex and drugs, but as Mary Renault explained decades ago, eventually, the King must die.
Doyle tries to flee but that may be impossible. And does he really want to? As Mama explains, maybe there is no Doyle, no life worth returning to. Maybe becoming Elvis would “fill up a place inside him that had been hollow since the day he was born.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.