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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Lost & Found: Robert Polito on Michael Edwards
Fix yourself a peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich in honor of today’s Lost and Found. We’re venturing back to Tin House’s third issue for Robert Polito’s read on Priscilla, Elvis and Me by Michael Edwards.
Inadvertence—ordinarily the predilection of surrealists and cranks—also spikes the most plangent as-told-to books and celebrity (or almost-celebrity) memoirs. Remove “Michael Edwards” from the title page and substitute “Don DeLillo,” “Vladimir Nabokov,” or even “Ford Madox Ford,” and Priscilla, Elvis and Me: In the Shadow of the King emerges as an audacious, slyly sad novel of accidental confession.
Edwards announces himself as “the most successful male model in the United States and Europe,” although memory and a casual poll of friends suggest that he was no more prominent back in 1988, when Priscilla, Elvis and Me appeared. His story proposes to chronicle his seven-year grand passion for Priscilla Presley, yet Edwards keeps stumbling over his disclosures. On their first meeting, he passes out on her suede couch. “I think you’re familiar with the living room,” she reminds him a few days later. On their next date, an outing with Lisa Marie’s friends to Magic Mountain, he vomits the beer he drank behind the Spin of Death. “I watched Priscilla and the girls climb onto the ride and, for the first time since childhood, I felt joy,” Edwards continues. He falls for Priscilla after he hears her dial random telephone numbers, pretending she’s a hooker. “Something about it touched a place in my heart, and I felt the first stirrings of love for her that evening.”
But Priscilla ultimately proves an inconvenient nullity—any sensation of an actual woman atomizes in his fury at her stint on Dallas(“she had found a new fascination—herself”). His self-consuming ardor roosts elsewhere, inside the ghost of Elvis Presley and the body of the King’s look-alike daughter. Successively aggrandized and shamed by “my position as Elvis’s successor,” Edwards steadily derails. “A very big Elvis” visits him in a dream, disguised as God: “I realized Elvis’s spirit had never left. Priscilla and Lisa were still under his protection, and Elvis was still waiting for the right someone to come along.” Elvis soon invades every recess of his waking life, from his meals (“As I sat and stuffed myself, I imagined this is how Elvis must have lived”) to his career (“Elvis must have felt exasperated, mass-producing all those fluff movies…I’d felt the same way on many of occasions modeling clothes”) to Priscilla’s infidelities (“Now I know how Elvis had felt when he caught Priscilla”). Edwards flees Elvis’s monogrammed, gold-framed sunglasses on his way to Priscilla’s bed, then appropriates his old cologne. He even purchases his mother a Cadillac.
For his creepiest substitution, Edwards reaches a startling equation: Priscilla was to Elvis as Lisa Marie is to him. Picking Lisa up at Catholic school, he lingers over her wool skirt, white blouse, and loafers—the young Priscilla had worn “a uniform just like Lisa’s…I could certainly understand Elvis’s feelings…. It definitely turned him on.” He scarcely can control his erection as they play together in the pool and, after a quarrel with Priscilla, Edwards drunkenly lurches into Lisa’s room. “I wanted someone to talk to, but Lisa was asleep. I lifted a corner of the sheets and gazed at her. She was lying on her back, and her honey-colored hair was spread out over the pillow. She was my beloved, and I couldn’t even tell her…. Everything about her was exactly what I wanted in a woman.” Lisa Marie is thirteen.
Priscilla, Elvis and Me traces the arc of a rent-boy Lolita: Michael Edwards as Humbert Humbert, Priscilla as Charlotte Haze, Lisa Marie as Lolita, and Elvis as the spoiling Quilty. But refuse the temptation to spin Edwards’s tale into camp—he’s too strange, too chilling for that. As another Elvis recently sang, “Stop me if you’ve heard this alibi.”
Robert Polito is Director of Writing Programs at The New School. His books include Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and an Edgar; Doubles (a book of poems); and At the Titan’s Breakfast: Three Essays on Byron’s Poetry. He is most recently the author of Hollywood & God and the editor of Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber.