Stephanie Zacharek reviews "Graceland: Going Home with Elvis" by Karal Ann Marling.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published October 4, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

When you're a lover of Elvis, some days it seems as if there's a kindred soul around every corner. Most days, though -- depending on what part of the country you live in -- it seems as if everyone is out to tear him down, snicker over his tacky house and insist that he wasn't a great artist because he didn't write his own songs (the same way that slacker Laurence Olivier didn't actually write Richard III). Lush, elegiac, and unabashedly heartfelt, Karal Ann Marling's "Graceland: Going Home with Elvis," is just the book for anyone who's ever been ridiculed for loving Elvis Presley.

Marling, a professor of art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota, traces the effect Elvis has had on our culture and our lives by picking up his ghostly trail, visiting every place he touched down and noting how his presence lingers: Las Vegas, where he was married in a glum ceremony to a woman whose hair was dyed and pouffed to look exactly like his; Hollywood, where he starred in picture after miserable picture, always anxious to steal a few days away to spend with his family and close friends; Nashville, where his dream of performing at the Grand Ole Opry was shattered almost as soon as it was realized; and, most important, Graceland, Elvis's outlandish, overdecorated house. A riot of television screens, fake waterfalls and white fur, the house is deeply affecting for its sheer exuberance, its refusal to bow to timeless tastefulness, its delight in going overboard on the novelty of the moment.

Like Greil Marcus, Marling goes the extra mile to reveal not just why Elvis matters, but how Elvis makes us who we are. She understands how the figure of Elvis as country hick is a lightning rod for smug superiority, a convenient receptacle for our own classbound insecurities. "Churches find the vigil idolatrous," she writes of the fans who trek to Elvis's grave site at Graceland every year on the anniversary of his death. "It provides another fine excuse for making fun of po' white trash and middle-aged women who fell in love with Elvis long ago... They may as well be Martians. They surely aren't us." Marling makes the case, with sensitivity, wit and old-fashioned American stubbornness, that they are us, and that try as we might to downplay Elvis's role in our culture, he has already seeped into our bones while we weren't looking. If there's such a thing as poetic sociology, "Graceland: Going Home with Elvis" is it.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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