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Book Talk: Road trip with a sadder, wiser Elvis

What would Elvis be like if he had survived the trials of middle age and was still alive today, chastened and reflective at 76? And what if he went on a road trip back to his past?
/ Source: Reuters

What would Elvis be like if he had survived the trials of middle age and was still alive today, chastened and reflective at 76? And what if he went on a road trip back to his past?

Ben Fish, the main character of Micah Nathan's "Losing Graceland," is 21, just out of college and jobless with an anthropology degree. Dumped by his girlfriend and grieving his late father, he answers an ad promising $10,000 in cash if he drives a mysterious old man to Memphis.

Their journey takes them from the Buffalo, New York, suburb where the man was living through bars that have seen better days, a karaoke "Elvis" night, and miles and miles of road. Along the way, Ben slowly begins to wonder if his passenger, who looks like an "old, fat Elvis impersonator," might not be the King himself.

Nathan, who does not consider himself a major Elvis fan, talks about his book and the singer who inspired him anyway.

Q: Why Elvis?

A: "It really wasn't about Elvis for me, it was about a sad man. I am just fascinated with a culture of sorrow, I like stories about Greece, and I could not think of a sadder man than Elvis, especially toward the end of his life.

"You have two people in the history of the world who you can dress up as and go anywhere, and people will know who you are. The first person is Elvis, and the second person is Santa Claus. He was at that level of fame, and he lost everything. He descended into self-destruction and lost it all. If that's not a tragic figure, I don't know what is. Especially because he still is so loved.

"There was clearly something about the guy that spoke to everyone, across all kinds of socio-economic lines. And I figured, nobody's done what I consider a serious fictionalized account of how he would view his life, had he made it."

Q: You said this was inspired by talk at a meal?

A: "We were sitting around dinner at a friend's house in Boston, and an Elvis song came on. Honestly, I can't even remember which Elvis song, because I was never really a giant fan. And I had this image of - at the time he would have been 73 - I had the image of a 73-year-old Elvis, kind of coming out of hiding one night and going to an Elvis karaoke night, and just getting up on stage and competing, and then coming in second place. I had this image of a woman saying, 'You know, you sound like him, but you don't look anything like him.'

"That would actually happen if Elvis was in hiding somewhere, because everyone's kind of taken over his image. So it was from that one scene that the rest of the story came."

Q: Did it come easily?

A: "I spent about a year and a half reading everything I could about Elvis and watching all of his movies. That was the worst part. If there was ever a time for an author to pay his dues, it's sitting through a film festival of Elvis movies. But sure, everyone's got to eat, and I'm sure Elvis didn't think they were anything great either.

"I was more nervous about this book than my first book. I was dealing with an icon, and I didn't want to be cheap. I didn't want it to be the equivalent of putting Elvis on a shot glass. That's been done before, many many times, and I wanted to create somebody real."

Q: Why does Elvis have so much appeal even now?

A: "I think the lesson of Elvis is universal and is timeless - that is, the Fall. His life mirrored a three-act, and his life kind of mirrors in some ways a distorted version of the American dream. Here's a kid who grew up dirt poor, just dirt poor. Was hungry all the time, was son of a part-time laborer. By virtue of his own will and talent, he made himself into arguably the most famous pop culture icon in the history of pop culture. And then comes the fall. Unwittingly, he kind of followed a Shakespearean arc. I think that is unconsciously part of the appeal.

"I also compare him to a funhouse mirror: we see a twisted version of ourselves. Everything I read about him, after I stepped back I realized I still didn't know anything about him. Everything I knew was either second or third hand. All the interviews that Elvis gave were very guarded - he was either very careful with his answers, or he was so hopped up on drugs that he couldn't really say much. He didn't write any of his own songs - this is not a criticism of him, but the way that people learn about authors is the books that they write, the way they learn about musicians is the songs they write. He didn't write songs.

"So he's kind of this empty vessel that anybody can step into. I think there's a sense of personal ownership that really attracts people."