Black Elvis (Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction)
by Geoffrey Becker
Reviewed by Jaspar Lepak
Geoffrey Becker's second book of short stories, Black Elvis, offers a brilliant collection of characters, cities, bizarre relationships, and oddly resonant endings. As the title suggests, music is what holds these stories together: whether the main character is a black man who plays Elvis tunes at a weekly dive-bar blues jam or the scene opens on a Parisian street corner between a Jimi Hendrix impersonator and a fast-tempoed bluegrass fiddler, Becker's keen sense of range for the human condition is written through the lens of music -- though that lens keeps twisting in and out of focus.
Becker's characters are each a unique blend of lies and truth, and reading from one story to the next can feel like hopping a train to another part of the world and landing in the open window of a stranger's apartment. These characters may sleep with a best friend's son on a vacation in Santorini or accept a job finishing paintings for a kitsch cowboy artist in Jackson, Wyoming, but wherever they are, they are uncertain if they have made it to the right place. "Tell me something," asks the Black Elvis, "Is that what you think? Have I gotten it wrong all this time? Should I be doing something else?"
Becker tackles these questions with a strong sense of empathy, and while his characters may be responsible for their problems, it is hard to blame them. The author's genius lies in his ability to bring certain types together to draw out individual complexities -- like the "Black Elvis" who meets the "Asian American Robert Johnson" or the alcoholic father who decides to quit drinking the same day he takes in his dead son's gay lover who is also dying of AIDS. "Opposite colors -- yellow and violet, for instance -- actually seem to tremble when they're next to each other, because our eyes can't adjust for both at the same time." Becker's stories take place within the amount of time it takes his characters to tremble, and then, in his sudden way of ending, Becker leaves them, letting a sort of resonance creep in that is far from resolution.
Often, Becker brings the reader into a story too quickly, stuffing the first few paragraphs with an overload of sensory details -- a clash of cymbals, too many instruments -- but the sounds soon sort themselves out. As the geography and relationships fall into place, it becomes evident that fresh imagery is just another one of Becker's strengths: "The grocery store carries only iceberg lettuce, tight, cold balls of it, shrink-wrapped and shining"; "I thought you were what a Beatles song would look like if it could walk around." An album of confused and fascinating characters encountering strange and unusual places, Black Elvis has something for all readers who sometimes doubt their own sense of direction, and even more for the reader with an ear and a love for music.