Elvis and Nixon , by Jonathan Lowy. Crown, 335 pages, $22.95.
You’ve seen the picture, in a dorm room, perhaps, or a coffee-table book. And you’ve paused, because it is extraordinary to contemplate Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley in the same place, in the same historical moment, in the same frame, shaking hands.
Nixon looks a little confused and put out, and Elvis looks glassy and drugged up. They both have faraway looks, but for different reasons. Nixon’s mind is on other things, probably war crimes. Elvis is there to become, of all things, a federal agent in the war against drugs. It is Dec. 21, 1970. Elvis is well into his fat phase, a lurid spectacle in a purple crushed-velvet suit with a caped jacket, bell bottoms and a mighty gold belt that might as well be a corset.
Why should a meet-and-greet photo-op handshake shot have such iconic power?
Why is the image, as an aide at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., put it, “our most popular photo that has ever been”? It has something to do with the dual portrait’s Warholesque flatness, the way it busts straight through irony and then camp to become an affectless and unfathomable document of pure vortex celebrity. It was, the Presley scholar Vernon Chadwick said, “like the docking of two spaceships.”
But there is historical context, too, and that must have been what set Jonathan Lowy to thinking that the visit could be a springboard for his first novel. He closely tracks the available record (which is richer than you might think) on Elvis’ travel to and time in Washington, and he adds a number of minor characters and subplots.
There is a lot of business involving Elvis’ good-old-boy cronies, who are frantic with greed when the King goes missing. And there are converging stories involving Watergate-style covert operations. One has to do with a Vietnam veteran from the ghetto who rejects a medal at a White House ceremony and gets his comeuppance, the other has to do with a bureaucrat’s son returned from the My Lai massacre. Both nicely capture the grim conspiratorial tone of the late-Cold War era. Mr. Lowy, who is a lawyer, is at his very best in a scene in which a lawyer advises a potential witness on how to handle his role in the court-martial of Lieutenant William Calley, who orchestrated the massacre. The lawyer’s methodical and cynical review of actual testimony from the proceeding is dark matter, indeed.
Mr. Lowy’s most valuable contribution, though, is what you might call the background music. His novel conveys a fully realized sense of the nasty, paranoid fever dream of a time when Nixon was ascendant and the Woodstock era was already over, only a few seasons after the Summer of Love.
Elvis’ trip from Graceland to the White House is presented as a sort of epic journey, an impulse which probably owes something to the author’s degree in folklore and mythology from Harvard College. (His thesis: “Elvis as a Hero of the Global Village.”) Thus, Mr. Lowy has Elvis think this as he sets out from Graceland: “Quest. I’m not escaping; that’s not it. I’m searching. But for what? What in God’s name am I looking for?” His limo driver in Washington is Channa, which was the name of Siddharta’s charioteer. The whole book is a strange admixture of high myth and Buddhism delivered in cornpone dialect.
Last year, in a collection of essays called Double Trouble , Greil Marcus made the case for parallels between the appetites, ambitions and talents of the young Elvis and Bill Clinton. Mr. Lowy explores a set of darker and, in many ways, more resonant echoes and shadows in Elvis and Nixon . By 1970, the President and the pop star were both in the early stages of self-destruction, both driven by inordinate hostility toward and alienation from the counterculture and an unhealthy fascination with freelance law enforcement. And yet, for both of them, the youth culture was a necessary adversary, the dark twin, the backing on the mirror. “Defeat the enemy,” Mr. Lowy has the Nixon aide John Ehrlichman say, “and we defeat ourselves.”
Though they get equal billing in the title, the central presence in Elvis and Nixon is Elvis: Much of the novel is presented from his perspective, with his consciousness streaming.
Elvis views the hippies and radicals with intense suspicion, though he saves his deepest loathing for rock music itself. (“Where the hell,” Mr. Lowy’s Elvis thinks, “were the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and his woman lips and the Rolling Stones when Elvis had shaken things up to create the world?”) All of this is mixed with the piercing resentment Elvis feels from blacks. “There was the money thing–you got it, we don’t–and there was the old slavery thing, the Civil War thing, the southern thing, all that black and white angry crap. But there was something else, Elvis felt, at the core of the rage, a special anger for Elvis. It was this: You stole our music, you white bastard .”
Elvis is jammed up, then, between a past in which he has come to be viewed as an interloper, a thief, and a future in which he is irrelevant and–soon enough–a punch line. Mr. Lowy puts a lot of weight on the King, but in his way, he can take it. He is a pathetic, slurring pharmaceutical cocktail in human form, yes, but not without soul. Mr. Lowy lets us know that Elvis “was obsessed with the theosophical and religious writings of Madame Blavatsky,” and he has created lots of rants and riffs reflecting this. These harangues add depth to what could otherwise have been a tiresome and simple character, but they suffer from a kind of verbal bloat.
And I’m not sure I’m prepared to take Mr. Lowy’s word for it when he mentions, in passing, that Elvis dipped into The Tibetan Book of the Dead from time to time, or that he was “Confucius on pills.”
You may prefer the more straightforward delusions of the Elvis who wants a federal badge so people will stop bothering him about all of his damn guns. “There’s a damned near revolution out there,” Elvis thinks, “hell-bent on breaking out any instant, those damned Beatles leading the charge–America needs a superhero, part Dirty Harry, part James Bond, part J. Edgar Hoover and George Wallace combined; a powerful man versed in espionage, undercover work.”
Mr. Lowy’s Nixon is the familiar one. His patter and monologues are lifted from the White House tapes, or might as well be. The distinctive, disjointed, profane staccato is by now drained of some of its power to shock, but not to fascinate. There is a lovely set piece with Nixon and an underling on the White House lawn, with Nixon ranting about Vietnam and the press, and then movingly reminiscing about the humiliation of acting as a driver for Pat Nixon and her dates.
Mr. Lowy appropriates quite a bit of historical documentation, including Billy Graham’s war commentary (“We’ve all had our My Lais one way or another”), the priceless letter from Elvis seeking the famous meeting (“I have done an in-depth study of Drug Abuse and Communist Brainwashing Techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing”) and a memo from Dwight Chapin, the President’s appointments secretary, pitching the meeting to H.R. Haldeman, the chief of staff. “If the President wants to meet with some bright young people outside of the Government,” Mr. Chapin wrote, “Presley might be a perfect one to start with.” Mr. Haldeman’s reaction, a comment too perfect for fiction, is scrawled in the margin: “You must be kidding.”
Adam Liptak is a lawyer at The New York Times.