Elvis in the Morning
by William F. Buckley Jr.
Published by Harcourt
328 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Aaron Blanton
The publication of a novel by William F. Buckley is a literary event. The founder of the National Review and the former host of television's Firing Line, Buckley is known for his sophisticated tastes and his wide appeal among the literati. The titles of some of his previous works provide a clue about the type of books Buckley is usually associated with: God and Man at Yale; Up From Liberalism; Inveighing We Will Go; Nearer, My God: in all 40 books -- both fiction and non-fiction -- that Buckley has authored or co-authored. On the surface of things, then, none of this sets us up for his most recent work, Elvis in the Morning, a story that centers around the unlikely friendship between Orson Killere -- a young boy whose American mother works on a U.S. Army base in Germany in the 1950s -- and the king of rock n' roll.
Put that way, it all sounds very lighthearted and not entirely a work that one would expect from William F. Buckley, literary icon extraordinaire. Look closer, though: Buckley's payload is in the subtext of his gritty and unexpectedly darkly humorous 14th novel.
While visiting his grandmother in the States in 1956, Orson, then age 11, sees Elvis on the Jackie Gleason show and falls instantly and innocently in love.
Orson looked curiously at the twenty-one-year-old who appeared, with the angel face, broad smile, and pompadoured hair .... The singer opened his mouth and began to sing his heart out to a brand-new, hypnotic beat.
Back in Germany and under the tutelage of his favorite teacher, Mr. Simon, Orson picks up socialistic ideals. As he prepares for his 14th birthday, his mother asks him what he wants this year and the boy realizes he'll have to give it some serious thought:
To ask for something was to exercise the impulse Mr. Simon had identified, the impulse for self-aggrandizement at the expense of others.
Orson hatches a plan that will be a "totally private deed. His personal tribute to an idea. A modest effort at sharing the great wealth he had discovered that momentous night in Camden, almost three years ago."
To this end, Orson breaks into the PX at Camp Pershing. Everything is going fine: he gets in and has the 20 Elvis albums -- 10 in each hand -- he had planned on stealing for distribution to the Elvis-deprived, when he is blinded by light and overcome by MPs. Stars and Stripes reports the incident for the military world, including the following dialog between Orson and the major doing the questioning:
"Why did you attempt to steal the records?"
After a not-so-lengthy deliberation, the major sentences Orson to 30 days confinement to be served in the custody of his mother. "The probationary sentence further forbids the defendant, Killere, from listening at his home to any music by Elvis Presley for the probationary period of 30 days."
Orson's mother and grandmother laugh at the sentence on the telephone. "What's the dahlin' going to do, Francie," says Orson's grandmother in the line that supplies the book's title, "thirty whole days without Elvis in the morning."
Fate and Elvis, however, step in to circumvent Orson's cruel punishment. Presley, stationed at nearby Bad Nauheim, arrives on Orson's doorstep not long after his conviction. Tickled at the thought that a 14-year-old would risk so much in order to share his music, he searches the youngster out. "I'm Elvis Presley," he explains to Orson's mother when he arrives at their house unannounced. "And I've come to sing to Orson, on account he cayunt hear me on the record player."
Before Elvis leaves, Orson tells the singer that he must run and tell his best friend and fellow fan that Elvis is in the house. "... I have a friend," he tells the singer, "and she'd kill me ... if you went without her saying hello."
Orson returns in minutes with his friend, Priscilla Beaulieu:
Elvis now put the guitar down on the table. He stared at her. He said nothing, but his eyes widened.
The weaving of fictional and historical characters throughout Elvis in the Morning is skillful and not at all disconcerting. Buckley has done his research and his portrait of Elvis and the people around him reflects this. It is, however, not an Elvis story. The action throughout the book centers on Orson and the way his life is affected by the friendship that blossoms between him and Presley, 10 years his senior. It is also, like the best stories always are, a bit of a moral tale. Elvis' rise in the 1950s seems to reflect America's youthful innocence. Through the arc of the singer's career we view the turbulent 60s and the move into the self destructive 70s. And, of course, we never reach the 1980s.
Elvis in the Morning is a tightly-woven tale that is enjoyable to read on any level that you care to approach it. Buckley has a knack for making us think and giving us pause no matter what, apparently, the subject matter. | July 2001
Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.