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Radio Elvis and Other Stories
John H. Irsfeld
Fort Worth, Texas: Texas Christian University Press, 2002.
£13.97, $22.50, 197pages, ISBN 0-87565-265-4 (hardback).
University of Nottingham
John Irsfelds Radio Elvis and Other Stories encapsulates
the mixed messages of America. It is a collection of fifteen short
stories that paints
a picture of America in wide and multicoloured brush strokes; taking inspiration
from the many and varied characters, images, cultures, and events that have
characterised America in the last century. Those who see America
as land of opportunity, fixed
with the triumphant glow of success, would do well to pay close attention to
the stories collected in the first part of his book called Dreamland.
Irsfeld dissects the American Dream through engagements with familiar pop icons.
In the second part, Las Vegas, Irsfeld deconstructs the image of
the eponymous city and brings to life those often hidden sections of Vegas life.
Showing the reader how the other half lives brings forth an American reality
that is not often seen in the outside world. Irsfelds third part, The
Army, recollects more personal stories of life in the services at a time
when America was alone in its pursuit of freedom for South East Asia. The spectre
of Vietnam looms large over the young GIs who do not know the true cost of war
until it is too lateuntil they are lucky enough to return home. After reading
this book one gets a coherent outline of Irsfelds America; a view which
is in itself both panoramic and detailed. On one level America is what it sells
itself to be, a land of bright lights and cultural icons. Beneath that we get
a more intimate picture of life in the big country, during these times of war
and international uncertainty Irsfelds stories help make sense of American
anxiety deeply rooted in the conception of its own history.
In Radio Elvis Irsfeld imagines Elvis as an old man, touring the
country and earning a living by entering Elvis impersonation competitions. As
the aging rock star decides to go to Chicago for the biggest competition of the
year he recounts how he has lived far from the spotlight, free from the drugs
and alcohol abuse that kept him a prisoner when he was younger. His freedom was
well earned and being free to wonder the streets amongst the people who had once
followed his every move was a luxury that he did not want to lose. He had even
taken to carrying around a pistol to protect his liberty: Hed use
it, too, if he had to. He hadnt bought his freedom at such great expense
] to lose it all to some weirdo (5). This story is a compelling
depiction of fame and celebrity, and Irsfelds use of Elvis, the American
icon who still lives in the hearts and minds of Americas dreamland, helps
the reader see how closely entwined popular culture and imagination are. For
example, people are always trying to imagine what their favourite star would
look like if they were still alive today: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, James
Dean. These stars are the faces of the American Dream gone asunder; as they squandered
the opportunities laid out before them their lives became legend even before
they died. Fans lived vicariously through the objects of their affection and
so when they died a small part of the fans died with them. Resurrecting the star,
in this case the King of Rock n Roll, reconnects his fans with
the past and the legend.
However, as the story develops, we see that metaphorically resurrecting Elvis
by continuing to impersonate him does not fill the gap, instead it highlights
how much America looks to its past rather than to its future. This story literally
imagines the future with Elvis as an old man. For some, looking to the past
is the only way they can get through the present and as such life becomes a
replaying of history. America is locked in a trance, the mythic past becomes
reality and the dreams and hopes of the nation in the past remain the dreams
and hopes of the present. Living through the nostalgic image holds great appeal
for those fans of Elvis portrayed in this story but ultimately this does not
help them grow or become individuals. At the same time, America cannot grow
or progress if it still relies on the past to imagine its future. Elvis impersonators
do not do Elvis as well as Elvis. As Irsfeld writes:
his prime he had been the best EPI [Elvis Presley Impersonator]
of all because
he had invented the game. When he was gone, the doors opened for all the
second-tier EPIs to try out for Number One. The trouble was, Elvis
Presley was so hard
to do that only Elvis Presley himself could really do him. But without him,
could be only what there was. (14)
Irsfelds image of the dreamland tackles
American nostalgia head-on and leaves the reader in no doubt that putting
faith in the past,
images of the past that were flawed even then, will not contribute to a nation
stands on the threshold of a new era. America as the only superpower left
in the twenty-first century must look to the future or risk becoming a second-tier impersonation
of a previous self.
The stories in The Army construct an all too familiar image
of America in the 1960s. America was caught between trying to improve
itself as well as
trying to bring freedom to Vietnam. Such was this dilemma that it failed
to do either and as a result a generation was scared with images of
a war at home where
social groups fought to be heard and fought to be free and a war in
the jungle where young men fought for the right to return home and
live their lives in peace.
But returning home was not the end of the war for those young men,
of a Soldier and Its Fun To Say Yes, But Sometimes
You Just Got To Say No describe how those who did return brought
back stories and images of comrades that haunted their dreams and nightmares.
For some the war
in Vietnam was a chance to prove themselves, a chance to live the idea
implanted in their heads since childhood: America was freedom and freedom
Of course, when they returned they were not welcomed back as heroes
or liberators, they were seen as imperialists and murderers. This reality
did not sit well with
the popular image of America at the time and it remains the same today.
tales of army life we see how the soldiers had to live with that dichotomy
and cope with fighting the war that America needed to fight for its
own pursuit of
freedom. Those who did not return fortunately escaped the
confusion of knowing they had fought for nothing:
now, when I cannot sleep, I search for memories to worry
about, what ifs to conjure with.
This is one
of those memories, and the what if is, of course, quite clear. I
am consoled a little by knowing that Glenn Kennedy
not have wanted
other way. I am consoled what little I am consoled when I
think of him as he was back at Fort Benning in 63 and 64,
a young warrior who picked up only burdens he could carry,
available only for fire and movement, not available
yet for death.
We tampered with those records as we tampered with everything else
in those halcyon days, certain in our belief that we would surely
that there would
always be madder music, stronger wine.
We werent alone then.
Now we are. (169)
Irsfeld intimates, those who returned home came back with the extra
burden of having come home. They should not have
yet they did
war in Vietnam was already a burden on the national consciousness.
Imagining the war as a war for freedom, a common occurrence in Americas
past, did not hold true when GIs arrived to see that life had gone
on and society had turned
against them. Just as Irsfeld tells us in Radio Elvis that
America is a poor imitation of itself he tells us in these war stories
that by trying
to live up to its imagined historical and political reputation America
failed to look to the futureliterally taking away the future
of those who had died for their country.
Radio Elvis has many things to say about America and it
is a credit to the author for bringing such vitality to his stories.
There are many
which the reader can connect with the material: either through
of the popular such as Elvis, The Great Gatsby, or George
notions of the real and the unreal in Las Vegass nightlife, casinos, or
streetwalkers; and the war, with the army, comradeship, or bereavement. Irsfeld
has woven an intricate pattern around the dream that is America and
from that the reader is able to see just how much the nation has to teach us
about diversity, culture, and ambition, and equally how much it has to learn
about progress, history, and the future. The concept of this symbolic journey
is very much evident in John Irsfelds book, not only because America
is just taking its first steps into a new century but also because his own
journey provides the template for many of his stories.
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