Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


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).

Lincoln Geraghty
University of Nottingham

John Irsfeld’s 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. Irsfeld’s 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 late—until they are lucky enough to return home. After reading this book one gets a coherent outline of Irsfeld’s 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 Irsfeld’s 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: “He’d use it, too, if he had to. He hadn’t 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 Irsfeld’s use of Elvis, the American icon who still lives in the hearts and minds of America’s “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 constant 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:

In 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, there could be only what there was. (14)

Irsfeld’s 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 that 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, Irsfeld’s “Death of a Soldier” and “It’s 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 was America. 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. In Irsfeld’s 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:

Sometimes 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 would not have wanted it any 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 live forever, that there would always be madder music, stronger wine.

We weren’t alone then.

Now we are. (169)

As Irsfeld intimates, those who returned home came back with the extra burden of having come home. They should not have felt guilty yet they did because America’s war in Vietnam was already a burden on the national consciousness. Imagining the war as a war for freedom, a common occurrence in America’s 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 future—literally 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 ways in which the reader can connect with the material: either through images of the popular such as Elvis, The Great Gatsby, or George Orwell’s 1984; notions of the real and the unreal in Las Vegas’s 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 Irsfeld’s book, not only because America is just taking its first steps into a new century but also because his own personal journey provides the template for many of his stories.

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.