Tarzan Presley

Author: Nigel Cox

Publisher: Victoria University Press

ISBN: 0-86473-480-8 (Paperback, 463 pp.)


Two icons of popular culture, Tarzan and Elvis, are amalgamated in "Tarzan Presley" to produce an interesting, though for Elvis fans sometimes uncomfortable tale. The book is divided into three major parts, the youth of Tarzan in the jungle and his subsequent discovery; his entry into civilisation and breakthrough as a performer and his resulting worldwide success; the period following his death.

This unusual tale is based strongly on the fundamentals of the Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 - 1950) and a clearly more than passing knowledge of Elvis's life and career. All of the elements of the biographies of the characters who inspired Nigel Cox's tale are present: Tarzan is brought up by and amongst a family of gorillas, including Kerchak and Kala (names from the original Tarzan stories), ferocious mega-bugs, and perhaps the best-known name in the Tarzan tales, Jane Porter. Incidentally, Burrough's original Tarzan tale, "Tarzan Of The Apes," appeared in 1912 and was followed by 24 other Tarzan adventures.

The Elvis influences and references are also abundant: Sam Phillips, Scotty Moore, Bill Black, Gladys and Vernon, all of these and many others, including Parker, feature, as do Graceland, the films, Las Vegas and his many hits.

Of course, a number of compromises and adjustments have been made in order to mix the Tarzan character with that of Elvis. To begin with, Tarzan is found, not in the jungles of Africa, but in those of New Zealand. Don't complain about there being no wild gorillas in New Zealand -- this is pure fiction, after all! There is a shift in time, too, for this new version of Tarzan is born in 1935. Adjustments to the Elvis real-life story include different names for his hangers-on and an extra title added to the list of films (would you believe "Wild Jungle Girls"?); Graceland seems to have much larger grounds than in reality and the swimming-pool unfortunately becomes guitar-shaped -- a poor and unnecessary adaptation.

The author seems to be fascinated with patterns, and references to them occur throughout the book. When two sheets of transparent plastic have different patters printed on them and one sheet is placed on top of the other and moved around, interference takes place and new patterns emerge. In a way, the book is itself a mixture of the two patterns of the biographies of the fictional Tarzan and the real-life Elvis and the combination of these patterns sets up this totally new tale, in which elements of both combine and often significant parts of the originals are still visible and recognisable.

This makes for an interesting, readable story, but the dichotomy also has a drawback, especially for us Elvis fans who know the Elvis story well. The problem is that the tale contains so much that we can recognise that we can be suddenly almost shocked by an incongruity that might fit well in the a fictitious tale, but not with the story of Elvis as we know it. (Perhaps Tarzan aficionados will find the same difficulties with the first part of the tale!) What we forget, of course, is that this is not yet another biography of Elvis; indeed, Elvis as such is soon cleverly removed from the large second part of the book that deals with Tarzan, who then takes his place to develop into a world-famous star. What is left is basically a fictitious romp, a story that a non-fan, unaware of the close similarities to the real tale, will undoubtedly enjoy.

The third part of the book deals with the time following August 1977. This provides a fascinating tale of what might have been, and its story is constructed well enough as to make it almost believable. This section also includes a brief, reasonable summing up of Elvis's -- sorry, Tarzan's -- career, though, as is usually the case, this is overly complimentary about the Sun tracks when compared to later recordings.

I like the writing style, with short, sharp sentences and plenty to keep the reader interested: Tarzan's jungle life, his discovery, his problems in getting used to the "civilised" world, his struggles in learning to cope with speaking, reading and all the other things we take for granted, his second discovery as a singer, his career, his relationship with his foster-parents (Gladys and Vernon), his self-doubt (see, it's so like the real story!). There's plenty there to make the reader think and perhaps to pause to consider, but the interaction with the Elvis we know is sometimes confusing and perhaps even grating.

"Tarzan Presley" is an interesting addition to the Elvis fiction bookshelf. If it is read as pure fiction, eliminating the tempting references to the real-life story, it is an entertaining read. Indeed, Nigel Cox seems to have done some pretty good research in order to follow Elvis's career so closely and to understand Elvis's significance (here personified by Tarzan, of course):

Tarzan came from the bush and, guided by Sam, he picked up the moment and carried the century away. He gave fighting room to the voice of the underside -- he took what was hidden in the deeps of America and gave it a place in the sun. You can chant your Lenin and Marx at me, talk about the impact of television, fling your academic volumes until your pitching arm gets tired. The egghead discussion designed to obscure the facts. The truth is simple: Tarzan made low culture important, and the rest is history.
Amen to that! Heck, the way that "Tarzan Elvis" is written makes me almost wish that Cox had produced a genuine biography of Elvis. But perhaps there are just too many of these already.


David Neale

Copyright July 2004

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