by Gail Sittoe
New York author ARTHUR NERSESIAN vilifies Elvis’s tabloid “biographers” in his new novel, MESOPOTAMIA
As an Elvisphile, I have long grown weary of the artificial Elvis sightings, citings, and insights peppering America’s tabloid papers and America’s tabloid-inspired pop culture. So when Mesopotamia, a taut new thriller by Arthur Nersesian, crossed my desk, I grew immediately concerned. Here was yet another ill-informed New York author co-opting Elvis’s visage to use as little more than window dressing for a tired ride into Tennessee.
My pompadour started rising when the central character of the book—a tabloid reporter, no less—stumbles across a trail of murdered Elvis impersonators. But with the driving force of “A Little Less Conversation” and the gentle sincerity of “Love Me Tender,” Nersesian and his female narrator lead us on a journey that at once honors the King and illuminates his exploiters. And tells a fantastic story along the way.
As if this were an album of cover songs, I found it lined with insider notes, and loaded with veiled homages that only the truest of Elvis fans might identify and appreciate. These details are folded neatly into a central mystery that could be aptly subtitled Elvis’s Revenge.
To begin, Nersesian populates his story with a scattering of figures from Elvis’s past: his final girlfriend, Ginnie Alden—who discovered his body dead on the bathroom floor—has been reinvented into Ginnie Ginnalian. She’s now middle-aged, remarried (hence the new last name), raising a daughter not much younger than she was when she dated the King, and running a carpet store in New Orleans; Dr. Nick (Presley’s over-prescribing doctor) is re-professionalized into Sheriff Nick (who under-detects in the novel). Even Elvis’s well-known moniker plays a part in the book. A key part of the probe is the reporter’s attempt to hunt down an enigmatic figure, named for Elvis’s famous alias, John Carpenter.
Where Elvis books in the past have paid homage to the King and Graceland, what sets this tome apart—making it an Elvis Avenged—is the motive for the central murders, rooted in the infamous memoir that broke the King’s heart, Elvis: What Happened? by Steve Dunleavy (father of the modern hatchet-job genre). Anyone fluent in the sad details of this ridiculous biography will remember that it was narrated by a pair of sibling bodyguards who worked for the King. It is clear from Nersesian’s treatment of the memoir that we can count him among those who believe its publication was partially responsible for the reckless behavior culminating in Elvis’s death.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, and Nersesian has waited these twenty-seven years to finally give the Elvis Judases their just desserts: In his novel, their blistering tell-all is succinctly entitled Elvis Why? by Pappy East (an amusing play on the real Sonny West, who “narrated” the painful expose with his brother).
If the Wests are most notable for embellishing actual events as bona fide history, Nersesian cements them in an alternative history, gleefully imagining their demise: In the years since they earned their whopping advance, they’ve steadily gone broke. One brother rips off the other and has gone into hiding. Without giving away the ending, I’ll just say that Elvis probably couldn’t have written a better revenge.
Underneath all the carnage, Nersesian seems to point an ambiguous finger toward an anagramatic band entitled Elvis’s Evils
as the culprits of his caper. One would have to carefully sift through the index of Peter Guralnick’s definitive biography to try to figure out which members of the Memphis Mafia the author might have been alluding to in his hilarious descriptions. Either way, this group and their leader, Snake Majors, make for great Elvis reading.
The final twist of the book hinges—(here I better issue a spoiler alert)—on Jesse Garron, Elvis’s long departed twin. To go any further would be going too far. All I will say is that after learning that Nersesian himself is an identical twin, I was compelled to ponder questions of originality and reproduction. One of the key themes in the book is the thin line between the Freudian and the fraudian. What is under investigation, we come to realize, is not the murder of impersonators, but the nature of impersonation itself—of truth, of history, of identity—and yes, of Elvis.
This small fast-paced gem is a perfect irony. In completing a job that, via dumpster-diving and telescopic stalking, parasitically thrives off celebrity culture, Nersesian’s tabloid hero exploits the exploiters. By expertly peeling away layers of sensationalism, the author’s meditation on truth and identity turns tabloid journalism on its head: he embellishes his fiction with facts.