Take his recent novel Elvis in the Morning, for example, a highly unexpected product even before one gets to the large picture of a shirtless Elvis on the back of the hardcover edition, the blurb from the author of Musical Chairs (“I loved this book”) and, on the inside back cover, a picture of the author that is, in fact, a “Painting of Mr. Buckley” (at his least Elvisian). To prepare for this work, the opening pages tell us, Buckley read, among other tomes, The Elvis Encyclopedia, Good Rockin’ Tonight and Let it Blurt (the biography of the gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs). He also paid a visit to Graceland, and the “Chief Executive Officer of Elvis Presley Enterprises” is warmly thanked.
As in many Buckley novels, the action that follows is seen through the eyes of a likable, largely guileless young man, by the name of Orson Killere, who is growing up on an American army base in Germany, in the ’50s, and much taken by “the rapturous sound, the beat, the joy on the god-like face of the performer” known as Elvis Presley. When fourteen-year-old Orson is arrested for breaking into a PX in Wiesbaden to filch ten Elvis records, and sentenced to thirty days’ confinement, the King gets wind of the act of devotion and suddenly descends to croon, “Missin’ you dahlin’, missin’ you” before the startled boy and his mother. From such unlikely beginnings a lifelong friendship is born.
As the book goes on, Orson develops, conveniently enough, into a kind of politicized Forrest Gump, getting suspended from Ann Arbor, where he is a student activist, in 1964, hoboing across America with a copy of On the Road and some joints and falling into a company that’s beginning to make computers. In the middle of his journey he meets an equally fresh and open-hearted Mormon girl (sometimes dressed in a “brand-new Goldwater-for-President sports shirt, the top two buttons unfastened”), and learns from her that “Mormons have problems, like everybody else.” As Elvis embarks upon his passage through Hollywood, the White House and Las Vegas, Orson is brought into his circle as a token regular guy, and (more important, perhaps) as the kid who introduced the King to his teenage schoolmate, Priscilla. When Elvis dies, Orson’s “eyes were flooded with tears” and he is left to wander down “memory lane.”
If a typical American, not blessed with an alien’s innocence, were to be asked what William Buckley is famous for, she would, most likely, mention conservatism and a large vocabulary. Yet it must be said that these are two of the tendencies least apparent in Elvis in the Morning, as in all of the Buckley novels I’ve read. Few conservatives I know would devote so much of their already oversubscribed time, in their seventies, to detailing the life of a “world revolutionary socialist” with such sympathy and sincerity–or would make him almost the moral center and guiding voice of a long narrative (to the point where we are moved to recall that “Orson” is in fact a corruption of “our son,” and a way, perhaps, for Buckley to try to imagine himself into the younger generation of the Sixties). And at no point in the book does the language suggest over-education.
In his opening pages, with customary grace, Buckley thanks an “extraordinary” copy editor, another copy editor, a member of his four-member unit who also “helped with the copy editing” and at least five others who went through the manuscript, quite apart from his beloved editor, a “Philemon” to his Baucis. None of them, one has to assume, demurred when Elvis, singing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” to the fourteen year-old Orson, reveals a face “wreathed with pleasure” (or seven pages later, when a woman invited to Elvis’s bed “gurgled her assent”). Nobody is likely to suspect that a stylist or a thinker is at work in these pages, and yet there is a kind of boyishness, a friendly absence of all worldliness, that disarms some of one’s skepticism. “Lying naked at her side, he stroked and kissed her. She moved her hands about his body, coming to rest finally on his tremulous and worshipful sex. He hoped and prayed that it would last forever.”
One can easily read all 328 pages of Elvis in the Morning without knowing why exactly Mr. Buckley has seen fit to fill us in on Elvis’s opening act in 1975 (and then to amplify the details ten pages later), or why he wishes to immortalize the “great, booming caterwaul of Grace Slick.” The book startles one not with the pressure put upon the narrative, but rather with the almost complete absence of all pressure: people go through near-fatal accidents, revolutions break out and no event is presented as more urgent than any other. In some ways the brisk skim across the decades reads like a blueprint for a screenplay (with Tobey Maguire, no doubt, taking the part of Orson). People who hear that Buckley has written of Elvis may assume that he is making a craven bid for the marketplace and hoping to attach himself to the glamour of one of America’s undying icons. Yet in reality he never tries to make his story racy or page-turning or sensational (just as he never tries to make it searching or thoughtful or resonant of very much more). One comes away feeling that he probably wrote it in just the position of pastoral ease–sitting on a summer’s day outside a Connecticut manse–suggested by the “Painting of Mr. Buckley.”