Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves: The Bass Reeves Trilogy, Book One

Deeply Felt Story of a man’s struggle to free his soul.

Review of Sidney Thompson’s Follow the Angels; Follow the Doves, University of Nebraska Press, 2020.

From 1875 to 1897, Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves rode the dangerous territory of Arkansas and Oklahoma, arresting over 3000 felons, and killing or wounding fourteen bad men in defense of his own life. He was never wounded though he did have his hat and belt shot off in two separate gunfights. Not only was he a brave and fierce lawman, he had such a dogged sense of duty that he even tracked down and arrested his own son for murder, then watched as his boy was convicted and sent off to prison.

Before he ever mounted a horse to chase down his first outlaw, Bass Reeves was a slave. It is Reeves’s life during this shameful period of American history that Sidney Thompson shows us in Follow the Angels; Follow the Doves, the first volume in his Bass Reeves trilogy. To own another human being, to whip him, put him in chains, and sell him and his family off like livestock, slave owners had to believe that their captives were less than human.  To get the rest of society to allow them to perpetuate this disgusting practice, they also had to convince everyone else that the slaves were inferior and that slavery was best for everyone.  Most importantly, because physical force alone would not keep large numbers of grown men and women in captivity, they had to convince the slaves that their lot in life was the way things should be.

Of course we know that Bass eventually gained his freedom. But to become free he had to break the psychological bonds of slavery that held him tighter than any physical chain ever could. One of the saddest scenes in Thompson’s novel is Bass’s first day as a young field hand. As he takes to the field with the other slaves, Bass’s mother, Pearlee, tearfully tells him—“You a slave, and this is slavery. And what that means is Master Reeves have the right to tell us what to do because he own this whole plantation and everything on it, including me and you and everyone. That be why he’s so busy, why we respect him so much. He take care a us, make sure we eat and get by. Now it’s your turn to do your part, you hear? We here to be thankful.”

With the seed of inferiority planted in his head, Bass begins his life as a servant. He rises from field work to take charge of the plantation’s livestock. Later, he becomes a favorite of the master, William Reeves, when he demonstrates a special talent with firearms. His life changes when he is given to the master’s son, George Reeves, who puts him in chains and has him whipped to let him know his place. Then the younger Reeves takes Bass into the Civil War as his body servant. The young master knows of Bass’s expertise with a firearm and orders Bass to kill Union soldiers. Through his struggle Bass grows physically and emotionally, learning about those who hold him in captivity as he learns about himself. He discovers that his captors depend on him much more than he depends on them. He reminisces that in his life as a slave, he’s had a kind master and a cruel one. Of the two, he concludes that the kind one was the worst.

Though Follow the Angels; Follow the Doves is the first volume of a trilogy, it is a stand-alone story with tension building to a dramatic climax. It is a beautifully written, exciting, and deeply felt story of a man’s struggle to free his soul. I can’t wait for the next installment.

Review of L.C. Flore’s award-winning Green Gospel

The Greek word Arcadia evokes a pastoral vision of harmony with nature, a utopia, an Edenic form of life. In the Arcadia, Florida of L.C. Flore’s award-winning Green Gospel, the city’s distance from the state’s popular tourist destinations has so far saved its surrounding marshland from Florida’s rabid development craze. But development accompanied by all the usual ugly sprawl is encroaching on Arcadia in the form of a huge residential subdivision.

The Reverend Reginald Dancer can look out the window of his popular mega-church, across the failed solar farm, and watch the encroaching cranes and bulldozers attack the marshland. As if the unsightly development isn’t enough of a insult to the environmental message of his ministry, his marriage has failed and his church is going broke. Dancer’s problems are not the only ones addressed in Flore’s novel. A sheriff’s deputy and his wife grieve over the loss of a teenage daughter to a kidnapping; And a mother is on the verge of losing her two sons who have been traumatized by their now absent father’s PTSD.

What these people need is an angel. What they get is a fugitive eco-terrorist from Oregon, Edie Aberdeen alias Edie Richardson. But this angel didn’t fall from heaven. Before coming to Arcadia, she tumbled sixty feet from a giant redwood tree she tried to save from the lumbermen’s saws. After a long recovery from her extensive injuries, she joined a group vandalizing SUVs and accidently killed the boyfriend who had nursed her to health when he tried to stop her from her mission. She lands in Arcadia after avoiding gang rape by the truck load of undocumented immigrants she hitched a ride with during her escape.

Once ensconced in Arcadia, Edie takes on the role of an angel. She bears a striking resemblance to the deputy’s daughter. She becomes a nanny for the troubled boys and gets involved in Rev. Dancer’s church though she espouses no religious faith. She even poses as the live angel atop the church’s Christmas tree.  But her true compassion is reserved for the environment and the stray cats she feeds in her spare time. Tension mounts as time runs out on the Reverend Dancer’s church. The boys’ disturbed father comes home to disrupt their mother’s life and undo the progress they’ve made under Edie’s care. Then the FBI gets hot on the trail of Arcadia’s angel.

There are wounds everywhere in Green Gospel—wounded environment, wounded bodies, wounded psyches.  Flores explores those wounds in a string of beautifully written characters’ back stories and weaves them into an engrossing tale of healing wrapped in a unique apocalyptic vision.

Review of Stephen G. Eoannou’s Muscle Cars, SFP, 2015.

Muscle CarsWith its lean, elegant prose and intense sense of place, Stephen G. Eoannou’s Muscle Cars is more than a collection of beautifully-written stories. It’s a deep dive into the psyche of the American male. In the title story, “Muscle Cars,” the protagonist’s loss of a beloved brother to the Iraq war looks more like PTSD by proxy than ordinary grief as he becomes estranged from his family through an obsession with bodybuilding and the high-octane auto of his stoner neighbor. “Mementos” explores the death of a parent and the jarring effects of discovering a hidden secret, and “The Girl in the Window” deals with fantasy and secret desire. A neighborhood myth is a powerful force in the life of a young boy in “The Wolf Boy of Forest Lawn,” and a man and his aging father confront the ruins of a time gone by in the rustbelt of the northeast. In “Ohio Street” a father fears the mistakes of his own youth are being replayed before his eyes by his son. A man’s guilt over his failure to fulfill his wife’s dreams is  studied in “The Corner of Walnut and Vine.”

The collection takes a darker turn with the next three stories. “Culling” has an aging uncle and his young nephew approaching the bleak future of deteriorating neighborhoods, dwindling employment prospects, and the pesky invasion of Canadian geese. The nephew thinks about escaping, while the uncle considers violence. The teenaged protagonist in “Slip Kid” finds that his friends have implicated him in the murder of a beloved priest, a situation that threatens disgrace upon his family. “A Person of Interest” demonstrates how easy it is for a good man to become inflamed by fear and prejudice.

Of all the fantastic stories in this collection, I have two favorites—“The Luckiest Man in the World,” dealing with economic desperation, the bonding power of sports and family loyalty; and “Swimming Naked” where a young boy is faced with bullying and the awful conforming power of a peer group.  Sandwiched between these stories are: “The Aerialist,” involving betrayal, “Games,” another story of sports and violence, and “Stealing Ted Williams’ Head,” where a couple of guys come to believe they can salvage all of their lost and crazy dreams in one big score—stealing Ted Williams’ frozen head and burying it in the outfield of  Fenway Park (Okay. This is one of my favorites too).

The last two stories have a feel-good vibe to them. In “Winter Night, 1994” two old adversaries meet on a fateful night. The protagonist in “Auld Lang Syne” must weigh his desire to keep sudden, unearned wealth against his and his wife’s ethics.

All I can say in conclusion is that I was particularly wild about three of the stories, and I damn sure wish that I had written  all of them.


A Friend of The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Friends of Eddie CoyleSadly, I too often discover the contributions people have made to my life when it’s way too far down the road to thank them. This is an example.

In 1976, Bob Bonfield sat in front of me in our office at the Alabama Revenue Department. I wasn’t sure I liked him at first. He seldom smiled, and his tweedy jackets were usually pocked with a burn hole or two from the Dunhill pipe he kept clenched between his teeth.  But during the time I worked with him, he taught me the nuances of a dry sense of humor and introduced me to the tangy flavor of Bob Sykes BarBQ and the aromatic magic of Jim Mate pipe tobacco. The only thing that annoyed me about him was his habit of trying to lure me into a literary discussion. I was especially wary of lit’ pushers because I had spent my post college years trying to concentrate my reading time on more practical pursuits such as tax law and accounting. So whenever Bob asked if I had read this or that novel, I would snap, “I don’t read..fiction” with the same derision Count Dracula conveyed when he declared, “I never drink…wine.”

One day in my office, I looked up to see him approaching me like a cat stalking a chipmunk. When he was standing across from me, he dropped a thin slip of a book on my desk and said, “Take this home with you and read the first page. If you can stop there, just bring it back, and I’ll never ask you about books again.”

I was tempted to tell him to take that vile and unproductive thing off my desk. But what was I afraid of? The scrawny little book, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, looked about as intimidating as a Brussels sprout. It was barely as thick as my thumb, and when I flicked through it, I noticed that there was almost as much margin on its pages than text. No, I thought, this would be easy. I would read the first page at a glance tonight and rid myself once and for all of Bonfield’s attempted intrusions into my reading life.

But that night, my plans to stop after the first skimpy page was thwarted when I became embroiled in a criminal conspiracy to supply guns to a gang of mob-connected Boston bank robbers. I went deep into my sleep time, hanging out with Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a small-time Boston hood, as he purchased guns for the robbers, then attempted to turn the gun dealer over to a Treasury agent in exchange for  lenient sentencing in Coyle’s hijacking conviction. I listened in as Coyle’s friend and bartender, Dillon, tried to find out about Coyle’s relationship with Jimmy Scalisi, aka Jimmy Scal’, the gang leader. I was privy to Dillon’s attempt to ingratiate himself with the Treasury Department by telling them that Scalisi and Coyle had something going on. I rode blindfolded in the floorboard of a car with a kidnapped bank manager, surrounded by Scalisi and his cohorts, then hung out with Treasury Agents, Foley and Waters, as they tried to figure out what Coyle was up to. Before I knew it, I had witnessed Coyle being murdered by his friend, Dillon, in execution of a mob contract.

Early in the morning, I dropped the book on my night table, wondering what it was about The Friends of Eddie Coyle that had robbed me of sleep and held me captive from beginning to end. I searched through the cast of characters and found none of them sympathetic, not a single one that I could identify with and care about. The narrative was certainly not compelling, in fact there was so little of it, it was more like stage direction in a play. No, it was the dialogue—dialogue that moved the action along at breakneck speed, and made me feel as though I were eavesdropping on a world of desperate, low-life criminals.

This dialogue was successful because it was authentic and eminently readable. There was the occasional phonetic spelling, such as using Broons for Bruins. But for the most part, the  regional flavor (south Boston) was accomplished by sentence structure. On page four, Eddie tells the gun dealer, Jackie Brown, why he’s so careful about the guns he buys and why having Jackie’s name is not enough to make him feel safe in the transaction: “I bought some stuff from a man that I had his name, and it got traced, and the man I bought it for, he went to MCI-Walpole for fifteen to twenty-five. Still in there, but he had some friends. I got an extra set of knuckles. Shut my hand in a drawer. Then one of them stomped the drawer shut. Hurt like a fucking bastard.”

Another authentic characteristic of the dialogue was that it wasn’t always linear.  Often, a character would drift briefly from the subject as people will sometimes do. An example of this is also on page four.  Eddie is further describing to Jackie Brown how the gangsters were ordering him to hold out his hand so they could break his fingers when he suddenly shifts from the direct story of the incident to an anecdote about his childhood: “‘Now get your hand out there.’ You think about not doing it, you know? I was in Sunday School when I was a kid and this nun says to me, ‘stick out your hand,’ and the first few times I do it she whacks me across the knuckles with a steel-edged ruler. It was just like that.  So one day I says, when she tells me, ‘Put out your hand,’ I say ‘No.’ And she whaps me right across the face with that ruler. Same thing. Except these guys aren’t mad…”

I was hooked on fiction again. I wanted very much to be a George V. Higgins fan, but I had to satisfy my habit elsewhere.  In his subsequent novels, Higgins came to rely on dialogue so much that most of the action in the scenes occurred in the past or otherwise away from the scene while characters rattled on and on in dialogue that resembled battling soliloquies.  The clever little oblique divergences that were so effective in The Friends of Eddie Coyle had become marathon ramblings, a novel in linked shaggy dog stories. After a page or two, I could no longer tell which of Higgins’ characters was talking or even what the subject was.

Years later, I was shuffling through the bargain bins of Books-a-Million when I came across a Higgins novel titled, At End of Day. Bonfield, who had reintroduced me to fiction, had died a few years earlier, and his memory drifted pleasantly through my mind as I picked up the book and ran my fingers across its slick cover. I was saddened when I read on the inside of the book jacket that Higgins had died.

I was moved to buy Higgins’ last novel for the bargain price of $5.99, and I hurried home with it, hoping that I would love it as I had his first. The book began in fine Higgins fashion with the characters becoming interesting simply by what they said and how they said it. But in Chapters 4 and 5 the dialogue that had been the driving force of the pacing in Higgins’ first novel brought the story in his last one down to a slow crawl. The two chapters consisted entirely of two veteran detectives telling each other things both of them obviously already knew. The dialogue included background that the reader needed, but it could have been handled naturally and more effectively in narrative.

I donated Higgins’ final novel to the library, but I ordered a copy of his first from Amazon. When the book came in, I read it again with more admiration than I had the first time. Now in my house, The Friends of Eddie Coyle sits proudly among the works of Graham Green, Ernest Hemmingway, Flannery O’Connor, Stanley Elkin, Richard Yates, Francine Prose and James Baldwin. If Bonfield were still around, I’m sure he would be pleased to know what an influence he had on my writing as well as my reading. And Higgins would certainly be proud of the company his shady protagonist, Eddie Coyle, now keeps on my bookshelf.

Fictional Ingredients

fictional ingredientsThis entry is the kind of thing that writers often stick at the end of their novels. I didn’t put it in my book because I think it’s really kind of boring and out of place in something other than heavily researched historical fiction. But some people are interested in how the sausage of fiction is made, so here are some of the other influences for The Land of Grace:

I’ve written about how I was spooked by the little shrine to Elvis back in December, 1977.  And I’ve told how I failed to turn that event into a short story. Since the idea of an unsuspecting guy being traumatized by an Elvis cult failed as a short story, what made me think it might succeed as a novel? The problem was, I kept trying to tell the story of this guy who took a lady home from a party to find out she was a member of an Elvis Cult. In other words, I was too hung up on the actual facts.

This is another way that reading comes in handy. In George Saunders “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” his protagonist is a “verisimilitude inspector” in a historical-like attraction where the hosts stay in character for the amusement of tourists. After reading “CivilWarLand,” I decided the setting of my story would be a kind of ElvisLand without the tourists. That required the introduction of more characters interacting over a longer period of time, which stretched a short story into a novella. From a hundred pages of almost continuous action, I blended in some back story that I already had prepared for my characters. Then my publisher, Joe Taylor, suggested I augment a couple of characters that he found interesting. The result is a two-hundred-and-fifty page novel.

The setting, ElvisLand, was renamed The Land of Grace sometime during the first draft. The name change came about while creating some myths to support the cult. I didn’t have to look far because Elvis’ early life was replete with miracle-like coincidences: He survived birth when his identical twin was stillborn. He wanted a rifle for his birthday, but out of the blue, a clerk at the Tupelo Hardware suggested to his mother that she buy him a cheap guitar, even though Elvis had never expressed any interest in the instrument. Sam Phillips had grown tired of Elvis’ audition session at Sun Records when Elvis suddenly began clowning around with Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama.” The coincidences go on and on.

I steeped myself in Peter Grualnick’s very fine Presley biographies and Elaine Dundy’s Elvis and Gladys. After reading those books, I relied on my flawed memory while writing because I wanted my myths to be loosely based on facts instead of being totally bound to them. Actually I wound up creating more than twice as many myths as I used in the novel because the recitation of so much faux scripture put a terrible drag on the action of the story.

While passing through Tupelo, Mississippi years ago, I toured Elvis’ birthplace, but it would be a while before I would look in on Graceland. On the first few drafts of the book, I used as a reference, Graceland: The Living Legacy of Elvis Presley, a book with some great photographs of Elvis’ mansion and estate. After I actually visited Graceland (which I’ll write about later) I had to revise some chapters because of the skewed perspective I had formed from just looking at photos all the time. Of course I added a few additional rooms in the wings of the mansion because my characters needed them. And I converted the horse barn into a garage for the restoration of antique Cadillacs because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

One man’s cult could very well be another man’s religion, so I will not attempt to distinguish the two. It seems to me that the really harmful cults (and wouldn’t this story really suck if it were built around a beneficial or benign cult?) seek not only adherence to a creed and a belief in their myths but an unnatural degree of control over the behavior of their believers. Exercise of that control often involves violence or the threat of violence (some polygamist cults,  The People’s Temple at Jonestown,  Solar Temple, and Heaven’s Gate). Cults seem to have a tendency to exploit their believers sexually. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s some kind of natural perversion of power. They do it because they can. But I can’t help thinking that most cults begin with good intentions. I can picture the leaders being narcissistic enough to believe that only they know what’s best for everyone.

Since Elvis was devoted to his mother in a very profound way, the leader of my cult had to be female. Mama, a local industrialist’s daughter, came back home to lead her father’s down-and-out former mill workers to the promised land.

Finally, how do you make someone believe he’s actually Elvis? The answer to this I owe to Patty Hurst. According to her lawyer and a stack of psychologists, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) kidnapped her and infantilized her by keeping her bound in a closet, continually threatening to kill her and making her totally dependent upon them. All the while, she was indoctrinated in the organization’s radical politics. Through a phenomena known as the Stockholm Syndrome, she emerged as Tania, picked up an automatic rifle, donned a snappy little beret, and helped rob the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. Now, if that Stockholm stuff can turn a privileged heiress  into a revolutionary bank robber, I believe it would be a piece of cake to make some unsuspecting bozo believe he was Elvis. Of course it wouldn’t hurt if the bozo really wanted to be Elvis to begin with.


A Picture is Not Always Worth a Thousand Words

Mona LisaBut I’ve run across a few people in my life who not only don’t tell a good story, they don’t even tell bad ones. This looks to me like a real affliction. I don’t know how serious it is, but since we communicate with each other through the stories we tell, it has to be more disabling than something like tone deafness and color blindness.

My Uncle Carl’s wife, Ruby, comes to mind. The groan that used to rise from my dad’s throat every time  she came to visit us from California sounded as if he’d just stepped on a rusty nail.   That mournful sound had nothing to do with knowing that Aunt Ruby would compulsively run her finger across any piece of furniture she walked by as if she were drill sergeant, conducting a white-glove inspection. No. We thought that was actually kind of funny. It wasn’t the fact that she considered us ignorant savages and thought that, since we weren’t members of her wacked-out religion, we were no doubt dancing, drinking, and fornicating our way toward the yawning gates of Hell. Naa. We kind of got a kick out of that too. My dad groaned because he knew that the bulky cardboard box she lugged around in those skinny arms of hers was stuffed to the brim with her dreaded pictures.  And my dad also knew that immediately after  Ruby was satisfied that all of our furniture dust had been properly accounted for, she would plop her butt down on our couch and begin dealing out those pictures, one-at-a-boring-ass-time.

“Here’s  my sister Opal’s front yard,” she began during one visit, pointing at the picture  of a middle-aged man, standing in a sandy yard, scowling at a scrawny little tree. “This is a tree,” she added as if we were too ignorant to recognized that little bit of flora despite the fact that we lived back in the woods and were completely surrounded by trees. She moved her long, slender finger across the slick black and white image, saying, “This is the edge of Opal’s driveway and here’s the street. Back here you can see a little bit of the Santa Monica Freeway…”

“But who is this man?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think Opal said his name was Tom.”

“Why is he standing by this stick of a tree?”

“Opal told him to stand by the tree so I could take his picture. Somewhere in there I’ve got a picture of Tom’s wife standing by that same tree. Then I took a picture of both of them standing by the tree. I’ll get to those after I’ve pointed out all the things in this picture. Right here I’ve got a little of their front porch steps in the frame…”

And on and on. It was like death.

You can see the problem. Not even a wisp of narrative  accompanied Aunt Ruby’s photo presentations. If a person shows you a picture of some guy named Tom standing by a scrawny little tree, you expect her to at least tell you who  the hell Tom is.   You might even want to know what his relationship is to the tree and  why the tree is so scrawny.  Why is Tom scowling at the poor little thing? Since he didn’t seem to enjoy the company of the tree, why did Opal insist that he get his picture made with it?  And, after thinking about it a minute, you might ask why he was taking orders from this Opal woman to start with? You can only imagine. But I’ll bet Aunt Ruby couldn’t.


Is Writing a Personality Disorder?

Photo by Drew Coffman [<a href="">CC BY 2.0 </a>], <a href="">via Wikimedia Commons</a>
Photo by Drew Coffman [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
The way he looked at me, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, you’d have thought I’d just told him I won the Georgia Lottery. But all I had told my friend was that  I was having a novel published in July. After shaking his head, he looked wistfully up toward the ceiling and sighed, “I always wondered if I had the talent to do that.” My answer was—“Hell, I have no doubt in my mind that you have the talent for it.”

“You really think so?”

Yeah, I really thought so. And still do. He’s a criminal lawyer. And every time I see him, he has me  alternating between sitting on the edge of my chair in suspense, and laughing my ass off.

I’ve been warned not to trust anything he says, so how much of what he tells me do I believe? To tell you the truth, I don’t worry about believing any of it. I’m only interested in the engrossing tales of personal struggle, courthouse intrigue, and wild, crazy clients. He has a gift for turning ordinary life into an artful blend of fact and bullshit that always involve him stumbling through utter chaos and ends with him landing amazingly on his feet. Believe me, if John Grisham knew where this guy hangs out, he would be there every day, taking notes.

I told him that he shouldn’t wonder for a second whether he could write a novel. The real question he should ask himself is—will he do it?

I explained that talent would be a good thing to have, all right. I’ve spent many a lonely night, sitting at my computer keyboard, wishing I had some of it.  But a novel is more than the product of a creative imagination. It’s a two-hundred-and-fifty-plus-page marathon that sometimes takes years of sitting alone, away from friends and family, arranging and rearranging words on a computer monitor till you get them just right.  When it’s finished, you have to revise it and revise it some more. After it’s all polished, you have to run a long gauntlet of soul-sucking rejection before your project finds a home–if it ever does. If the book fails, which is likely, you’ll have to decide whether to quit or start another one. Yeah, talent would be a good weapon for you to carry in your back pocket, but talent alone won’t even begin to get you through a long slog like that.

My friend is a charming, gregarious guy whose life sounds  like a three-ring circus. After I finished telling my boring theory of the limitation of talent, his expression changed from awe to sympathy. He patted my shoulder and said, “Man, that sounds like some kind of personality disorder.”

Genre Identity

Back when I finished The Land of Grace and began sending it out, I noticed that the first thing publishers and agents wanted me to do is hang a tag on it. Is it a crime story?  a thriller? a romance? a horror story? a comedy? Of course, they wanted to know how to sell it by identifying who to sell it to. Hell, I wanted to sell it more than they did, but as much as I would have liked to have accommodated them, I couldn’t help thinking the book is  all of these things and, at the same time, it was none of them.  For example, the story is chocked full of crimes, but crime is not what the story is about. While there’s action, violence and a rising sense of danger, no one who favors a thriller for a leisurely  read would ever list this as her go-to book. The thread of an attraction between a man and woman runs through the narrative, but the story would fail miserably trying to be a romance.

It has humor. Hey, does that make it a comedy? As I wrote the story, the humor just arose naturally from the absurd circumstances, who the characters were, and the way they viewed their world and interacted with each other. As the absurdly comical layers are peeled from the story, an absurdly horrific core is revealed beneath. That little twist caused me to strike out in this category too.

Horror? Well, now there’s a genre I could almost cram it into because the story includes some creepy and monstrous people doing creepy and monstrous things. But you won’t find any zombies, werewolves or vampires anywhere in The Land of Grace. You won’t find any ghosts rattling chains or demon-possessed children, twisting their heads around, spraying the walls with projectile vomiting.  In fact, there’s nothing even remotely supernatural involved in the story. So a reader of horror, unless she would accept psychological horror as a sub-genre, might be terribly disappointed.

The reviewer at Kirkus Reviews hit it on the head by calling it “A satirical novel about a religious cult built around the worship of Elvis Presley.” The reviewer went on to say, “Overall, the book artfully asks probing questions about the basic human need for mythology of whatever kind and about the point at which the tensile cord of innocent fascination snaps.” Did I start out trying to write a satire in order to “artfully” ask probing questions? Naa! I just began by asking what would happen if an Elvis impersonator was lured into a zealous  Elvis cult. I didn’t try to write a book that a “target audience” might want to read. I tried to write a book that I would want to read. Of course, now that it’s headed to the printer, I hope I’m not the only one.

An Elvis Cult?

Elvis cult?In December of 1977, I was taking my leave of  a boring party when the host asked me to take one of his female guests home. The woman had had an argument with her boyfriend over something, and the boyfriend split, leaving the poor woman all upset and stranded. She lived north of Birmingham, so far out in the country that as I followed her directions, I became a little concerned with finding my way back to the interstate in the dark.

As best I can recall, the woman was thin and had blondish hair styled in a short cut. I think she wore a Christmassy outfit in green and red. I want to say she had little Christmas ornaments dangling from her ears, but that may not be right.  One thing’s for sure, she smelled really good. Though I can’t describe the cologne she wore,  I remember it as a subtle fragrance, sweetly permeating the inside of my ’69 Olds Cutlass as the headlights sliced through all that rural darkness.  I was single, and getting lucky was always on my mind.  So even though I thought her to be unremarkable, in those days unremarkable was just sexy enough.

She talked a lot. The term compulsively autobiographical comes to mind because she told me what kind of person she was and what kind of person she wasn’t in three or four different ways. And she told me what kind of person she liked and what kind of person she couldn’t stand in no uncertain terms. Other than her directions, I had tuned her out because I figured I was the kind of person who understood exactly why her boyfriend had left her back at that boring-ass party.

At some point during that ride, she said she was the kind of person who thought having sex was the most natural thing in the world. She suddenly had my undivided attention. After telling me to turn in front of a little white clapboard house, she asked me if I wanted to come in for a drink. I said, “I believe I do.”

I remember the house as being really small and white with a narrow front porch and an eerie light flickering through the blinds of one of the windows. There was no foyer, so after she opened the door and flipped on the lights, we stepped straight into a tiny living room/dining room/kitchen combination that stretched across the front of the house. A door in the center of the back wall opened into a narrow hallway. Across the hallway was a bathroom. I imagined that the bathroom was flanked by a couple of bedrooms. But I never did get that far.

I felt as if I had stepped into a mini-museum with the walls splattered in pictures of Elvis—Elvis as a kid in a cowboy hat, Elvis on a motorcycle, Elvis in a sequined white jumpsuit onstage in Vegas, etc. Most of the pictures were framed photos, but she had two full-sized, color posters thumb-tacked to the walls. I’m certain about the Love Me Tender poster in the kitchen, but the one in the living area could have very well been from any of the umpteen movies that the King made.

In the living area, one of those uncomfortable, thin-cushioned, plastic padded couches with wooden armrests had been pulled away from the wall and faced a matching chair and three ladder-back chairs from the kitchen table. A long table with tall legs sat in the center of this snug seating arrangement. At one end of the table, a three-foot statue of Elvis with a guitar looked as if he were serenading a half-dozen votive candles flickering into puddles on what looked like a big aluminum cookie sheet.

The woman draped her coat on the couch and said, “I keep telling my sister she’s going to burn this place slap to the ground one of these days.”

After she blew out the candles, I’m sure I stood there speechless for a while, trying to take the whole thing in. I finally came out with something like, “Y’all must really be Elvis fans.”

“Oh, we love Elvis,” she said.

With getting lucky still my objective, I thought I would say something that would endear myself to this woman, so while copping the somber expression of a funeral director, I said, “I was really saddened when I heard the news about Elvis’ death.”

In the silence that followed, something about her face changed. My skeptical nature tells me that my memory is flawed, and it was just her expression crinkling up in disapproval. But every time I think back on that moment, my imagination runs wild, and I see Lon Chaney, Jr. transforming from a whiny, passive Lawrence Talbot into the fierce and growling Wolfman ready to rip out somebody’s throat.

One thing I’m not mistaken about is the fact that this woman shrieked, “Elvis is not dead! Don’t you ever say that again!”

Women have been yelling at me for years. My mother yelled at me a lot. My sister yelled at me. Teachers, female cousins, and a girlfriend or two have all yelled at me at one time or another. My wife has damn sure yelled at me. She might not admit it, but she woke me one night yelling at me in her dreams. So I’m well acquainted with being yelled at by a woman. This wasn’t a yell, it was a shriek that sounded like it was coming from some demon imbedded deep inside this woman.

“No, ma’am. I’ll never tell you that again,” I said. Then I glanced at my watch too fast for the time to even register on my brain and said, “God, I didn’t know it was so late. I need to get going.”

She said something. Maybe she asked if I was still interested in that drink she’d offered. If she did, I’ll bet I declined a hell of a lot faster than I accepted in the first place. Then I was out the door and into the yard, imagining Anthony Perkins in a wig and a long grey dress, coming up behind me with a butcher knife.

As I pulled out of her driveway, I didn’t notice whether she was standing on the porch or not. But if she was, she probably shrieked, “You’re going the wrong way, you damned fool.”  Because I was going the wrong way. When I finally calmed down, my inner compass took over, and I turned around and found my way back to the interstate.

I’ve made several failed attempts over the years to turn this shaggy dog anecdote into a short story. I could never get past the “so-what?” factor. So, some guy took some mysterious chick home. Then he gets freaked out because she’s an Elvis worshiper. So what?   I’ve wished several times that I’d had the courage to ask the woman about her passionate devotion to Elvis. I’ve always wondered  if she, her sister, and some of her friends actually gathered around that shrine while lighting candles and offering prayers up to the King.

While I think of that Elvis display as the weirdest  thing I’ve ever seen in my life, I realize that my interpretation of the events of that evening have undoubtedly been muddied by the passing years and colored by my avid interest in horror movies. I’m sure the combination of the dark rural location, being surrounded by Elvis pictures, the crude little Elvis shrine, and the woman’s shriek just creeped me out.

Something very benign and sweet may have been going on in that little house for all I know. So the woman, her sister and their friends loved Elvis. Good for them. Maybe they loved Elvis a little more than I would consider healthy.  Not my business. Still, I wonder about it to this day.

Back in 2006, I saw a notice in the newspaper that Dr. Gregory L. Reece was having a signing for his book, Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King at the Eclipse Coffee and Books in Montevallo, Alabama. I got him to sign a copy for me, and I told him a little about my Elvis story. He said that while researching his book, he had heard a few similar stories. In fact, he had an Elvis experience of his own. His encounter involved a woman adorned in Elvis jewelry at a Memphis hospital emergency room. She told him she had moved to Memphis to be close to Elvis and that she took great comfort, knowing that when her loved ones died, they would be in Heaven with Elvis. He could tell that this woman was much more than a fan, but their separate business at the emergency room separated them before he was able to find out more about her.

Reece’s encounter with the woman kicked off a campaign to discover the depth of this Elvis spiritual movement that ended with his interesting book. Reece didn’t find an actual Elvis religious movement.  But there’s something going on out there that kind of feels like one.

All those bogus stories of people seeing him in laundromats and doughnut shops after his death aside, the King’s been dead for forty years, and he’s still all over the place. At this writing HBO has a two-part documentary called Elvis Presley: The Searcher scheduled for the spring of 2018. Since his death, he’s had six albums and seven singles that hit number one on some chart or other in the U.S. or the UK or both. And how many singers who’ve been dead for forty years have 500 fan clubs worldwide? If somebody wanted to start an Elvis religion, those might be some pretty good places to start.

I look at TCB with a lightning flash and see a potential religious symbol not unlike a cross or a star or a crescent moon. And didn’t the Memphis Mafia follow Elvis around like disciples? Then there are the Elvis imitators that keep popping up everywhere. For example, the Krewe of the Rolling Elvi at Mardi Gras is an army of side burned Elvis wannabes  on motor scooters. Those guys make me wonder how many covert Elvi  are walking among us with jumpsuits secretly  dangling in their closets at home.

The  300 professional Elvis impersonators registered on remind me a hell of a lot of priests in that they’ve been performing the same routine in the same outlandish garb for decades. Instead of feeding the faithful the Host, they conclude their leg-shaking, karate-kicking  services by distributing pastel scarves dipped in their sweat. Of course, the Elvis faithful have their Mecca in Graceland, the pop culture shrine that millions trek to from all over the world.  Among historic residences in the U.S., only the White House has more visitors than Elvis’s Memphis home.

The whole thing got me to thinking. What if that woman and her sister did belong to some wacked-out Elvis cult? What would it look like if to this mix I added a charismatic leader with some deep pockets, a devoted cadre to help sell the faith, and a sacred text containing a theology with rules for the faithful, explained in myths and stories about the King?

Elvis, 1956

Elvis 1956If you don’t find me waxing nostalgically about America of the nineteen-fifties, it’s because for much of that decade my family owned neither a telephone, an automobile, nor indoor plumbing. We lived so far back in the sticks, my mother and I had to flag down the Greyhound bus out on U.S. 11 and ride ten miles into Fort Payne to pay bills and shop for supplies we couldn’t get from the peddling truck that came by every Wednesday.  Okay. I know what this sounds like. When I first told my wife this story she wanted to take a look at my birth certificate.

Our entertainment and news came to us via an old Crosley radio the size of a bread box in our living room.  But we kept seeing those multi-pronged aluminum poles springing up beside the houses out on the highway, and we knew what they were for. Every time we were in town, we lingered in front of the window of JT Morgan’s to watch the magic black and white images flickering across the screens of those shiny new 21 inch Zeniths.

One Saturday, we were excited by an invitation to a neighbor’s house to watch rasslin’ on their new television. To judge how badly we wanted to watch television, those TV-owning neighbors lived at least a mile away from us which meant we had to trek there and back in the dark. It looked as if our trip had been made for nothing because when we got there, no matter how many knobs our neighbor twisted, how long he’d stood outside turning the antenna, he couldn’t pick up rasslin’. Finally, he gave up and tuned  in to a CBS affiliate out of Chattanooga. The whole thing seemed like magic to me anyway, so I didn’t care what we watched, but the men were disappointed that instead of the he-man activity of sweaty, over-weight guys wallowing around on top of each other, they were reduced to staring at a sissy variety program called “Stage Show.”

“Stage Show” looked a hell of a lot more entertaining to me than ‘rasslin’. It started out with a troop of pretty girls dancing in intricate formation to a snappy  big band number. Then I thought it was really cool when the girls were followed by a ventriloquist and a couple of dummies selling Nestles chocolate mix.  I didn’t pay much attention to what the two guys who were running the show said next, but a man walked on stage through a chorus of girlish squeals. He had a pile of hair and sideburns, and he handled the guitar he had slung over his shoulder as if it were a machine gun. After giving the squealing girls a snarling smile, he launched into a bouncy song about blue suede shoes and how nobody should step on them. During an instrumental break, he hopped around, shaking his legs as if they were on fire. When he finished his song, everybody in the little living room was stunned. The men wondered aloud, “What the hell was that?” My mother said, “I liked him.” I was ten or eleven years old at the time, and all I knew was that  in the course of a few minutes, I had abandoned my desire to be a cowboy, a policeman or a fireman. I wanted to be that guy whoever he was.

Of course, it wasn’t long before everybody knew who Elvis was. My uncle sent us bus tickets to visit him out in California. For three days and nights, we heard “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” blaring  from the juke boxes of every bus station restaurant across eight states.

When we got back to Alabama, one of my friend’s parents had bought a television, and over the next few months, I finagled invitations to watch Elvis on a few of his appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. In the meantime, over my dad’s fierce objection, I blew whatever spare change I could scrape up on Vitalis Hair Tonic in a desperate attempt to train my hair into an Elvis-like pompadour. I must have looked goofy going around with my collar turned up, looking at everybody through hooded eyes, curling my lip when I smiled. I didn’t have a guitar or a record player, but I stood in front of my bedroom mirror at night, wiggling my legs and “caterwaling” as my dad called it.

The hair thing didn’t work out at all. Instead of handsome and sexually threatening, I just looked like an awkward  kid with greasy hair that wanted to lay flat on my head. My voice hadn’t changed, so when my class put on a program at the school assembly, my show business debut was reduced to a frantic pantomime  of “Hound Dog”. I was a big hit. But for the wrong reason. The auditorium full of kids roared in laughter. For a week they came up to me, telling me it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. They looked at me as a future comedian, while I knew I was a miserable failure as an Elvis imitator.

I spent the next  week climbing on the school bus to shouts of “Hey hound dog.” The whole thing made me want to crawl under something, but I couldn’t find anything low enough. On my next trip into town, I got the hair cut into a flat-top. Though I left Elvis on the floor of the barbershop, for a long time I carried deep feelings of envy and a painful sense of injustice. I had so much in common with Elvis. It just didn’t seem fair that he got to be the King of Rock and Roll while I had to keep on being a poor kid with an over-protective mother.

Over the next few years I saw a few Elvis movies but  found them boring. I thought his music fell far below the standard he set before the got drafted into the Army. By the time I got to college, Elvis had faded away, and everybody was listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and all those wonderful sounds coming out of Motown. Elvis’s appearance on television in a skin-tight leather outfit in 1968, looked as if he’d returned to reclaim his crown. But a few years later I went to a movie theater on Okinawa with some Army friends to see Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. I walked out of the theater, thinking, Elvis had gone to Las Vegas and traded in his rock and roll crown to become another Liberace.

But Elvis refused let me completely forget him. Every now and then something like “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” or “Way Down,” would hit the charts, and I would admit the guy could probably sing the Memphis Yellow Pages and make them sound pretty good.

On August 16, 1977, I was on the Bessemer Super Highway outside of Midfield, Alabama when the announcer interrupted the music on the radio to say that Elvis had died. Despite my feelings that Elvis’ music was no longer relevant, he was such a larger-than-life figure, that my first thought was, This is some kind of joke. Hell, this is Elvis he’s talking about. After I realized the report was serious, I pulled over in a parking lot and sat there for a while. It  wasn’t so much that I was sad about Elvis passing. I felt as if my youth had just been found dead on the bathroom floor at Graceland.