Sean Maher's Quality Control

Friday, October 21, 2005

Top Shelf Week: The King

"Life is more than drawing breath." So is Elvis quoted as a chapter break in Rich Koslowski’s second Top Shelf book, The King. It’s the story of Paul Erfurt, a depressed, hack reporter who finds himself suddenly employed by Time Magazine to investigate an Elvis impersonator so powerfully convincing that he’s built a fanatical fan base hundreds of thousands large in mere months. The man calls himself The King.

Is he really Elvis? Where does his power over these people come from? What does he want with our Pekaresque schlub anti-hero? These are only a few of the questions that arise in the opening pages of the book, and many more are presented as the tale goes on.

Lots of answers are presented, largely through the huge supporting cast. Everybody in the book has their own story, and in a story-about-stories sort of way (think Sandman in a sleazy Vegas mob sort of way) we learn them all. Paul feels certain that he can discover The King’s most important secrets by getting members of his religiously devoted retinue to slip up, give something away in the telling of their own tales. From character to character, Koslowski assembles a dozen or so parts that build a cohesive whole, and each story ads a piece to the puzzle.

The finished product, however, answers a central question Paul didn’t prepare himself to ask. Throughout the book, The King keeps telling him – “This isn’t my story. It’s yours.” This isn’t completely true; the book is about them both. The King is more a force than a person, an idea so passionate and vital it seems to have built itself a body and a voice, and this is the story of that idea. The crux is Paul Erfurt’s personal story, yes, but the book is just as much about the idea and Paul’s relationship to it as it is about Paul’s personal journey.

The questions that are not answered, that is, are the most important revelations. The questions themselves. We just don’t know enough to ask the right ones until we’ve done some research, some learning, you see.

Despite some subtle density in the script, this is a very smooth read. The individual experiences of the supporting cast are all really interesting, and in several cases they proceed on a predictable track until some minor detail throws a wrench into the gears (the stripper, for example, who started getting into some bad shit until she met The King, who turned her off drugs and prostitution... but has no problem with her still being a stripper). I particularly enjoyed Paul’s one-eyed private detective friend, and the mystery surrounding how he lost that eye.

There’s a bothersome element in here somewhere, something that kinda bugged me; Paul is confronting The King about the people who believe in him, and how unkind it may be to let them believe in what could be a lie. “If it makes [them] feel good to believe it,” The King says, “why shouldn’t [they]?” The book seems to endorse this idea, as a part of its endorsement of faith. But there’s no sense of consequence to this – what happens when believing something because it makes you feel good causes you to take action that hurts you or someone else? Koslowski doesn’t seem to want to address this question, and it made me feel like the book was a bit callow.

Until the end.

The book’s conclusion is one of the strongest in recent memory, and as the climax challenges each of its characters, so it challenges the reader and – just as The King leaves the final question to Paul to answer for himself – leaves us to decide for ourselves what the lesson is.

This is truly fantastic work, and I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for Koslowski’s next project. Give this one a look, friends.


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