In Tupelo, Mississippi, an Englishman gazes idly from his hotel window. His eye is caught by two men on the street below. One seems to pass through the other. The Englishman realizes that the man who passes through is a hired killer and that he who is passed through is, was, his victim. The tableau unfolds repeatedly in the Englishman’s mind. Never has he seen anything to compare with this moment.
That evening the Englishman spots the killer in a bar and approaches him. They discuss the philosophy of death. The Englishman is permitted to accompany the killer on his next mission. Again he is overwhelmed. He makes a proposition.
I, he tells the killer, am a producer. I have long since conquered Hollywood. Yet you are the noblest performer I have ever seen. In giving death you give grace to your victim, who becomes, for a holy moment, your supplicant. I will make you the greatest star in history. All will then comprehend the unspeakable glory of death, for we will show it to the country as you have shown it to me.
And so it comes to pass.
Or, rather, Nik Cohn pulls it off. He begins his new novel King Death (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 143 pp., $5.95) with this improbable and somewhat schlocky premise and fashions from it an elegant fiction that has the queer conviction of a waking dream and the crazed unreality of pop culture itself.
Despite his endless pledges to the pop creed of fun fun fun, Cohn has always—in his rock novel I Am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo and especially in his Rock Dreams (and those dreams were, I think, far more Cohn’s than artist Guy Peellaert’s)—been primarily intrigued by the thanatology of pop. That his killer angel comes out of Tupelo is no accident; he is, Cohn implies in the book’s dedication, the other half of the grandest pop hero of all. King Death is the risen ghost of Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’s stillborn twin brother.
This is more than Cohn’s little in-joke. Virtually all novelists who take pop culture as their subject exploit the repressed violence and death wishes that seem to lie behind the ecstasy of pop thrills; in King Death Cohn goes beyond the usual fake apocalyptic ending (in which a star’s big concert closes with an orgy of murder and mayhem) by making the underside of the story the story itself. If oblivion is what the mass psychology of pop is really all about, why fool around with cute hidden meanings? Death, reasons Cohn’s English producer, is what the people want in their hearts. What could be more satisfying than to give it to them?
In Cohn’s wonderful phrase, the producer “buys all rights” to a group of families, turns them into a captive audience for his new property and, testing one approach against another, persuades America to kneel before the Tupelo hit man as a god. If as social theory the process by which this triumph is achieved is a load of overheated English fantasy, as a cool little horror story it is all too convincing.
As the book nears its end—an ending implicit in the deal struck between the producer and the killer—one feels that Cohn is less telling the tale of King Death than, like his producer, promoting him. Cohn blasts that thought in a final scene that is more chilling than anything he has written.
With King Death Cohn has taken his vision of pop as far as it can go; what he will do after this, I can’t imagine. Such a dead end fits Cohn’s vision too; in his world pop people are supposed to dry up and disappear when their work reaches a self-consuming conclusion, or when they hit 30, and Cohn is only one year away. As in King Death, though, I would guess he will come up with a better ending than that.
→ Spider Kiss by Harlan Ellison (Pyramid paperback). This superbly trashy novel (first issued in 1961 as Rockabilly) chronicles, with an eye and an ear for the grime and power of rock & roll that few if any writers have matched, the rise and inevitable fall of a post-and-very-much-like-Elvis superstar. Characters include a soul-searching flack, a Colonel Tom-style super-manager and “Stag Preston,” born Luther Sellers, a rockabilly flash who is not only a great big hype but a natural artist whose genius no evil, including his own, can ever snuff. Out of those materials comes a story that makes sense and an ending that, unlike those of most hooks of this sort, has some real tragedy to it.
→ The Years With Ross by James Thurber (Ballantine paperback). Thanks to the success of Brendan Gill’s recent bestseller, I, a Snob, also known as Here at the New Yorker, Thurber’s earlier and far superior memoir of his tenure with that publication is back in print. Thurber may not have been a nice guy, as current accounts indicate, but when it came to Harold Ross and the perils of journalism, he had nothing to prove, just a story worth telling.
→ The Guinea Pigs by Ludvik Vaculik (Penguin paperback). Graced with the best opening line to appear in eons—“There are more than a million people living in the city of Prague whom I’d just as soon not name here”—this remarkable novel (banned in Czechoslovakia, Vaculik’s homeland) blithely develops into the tale of a man whose attempts to learn the secrets of the bank where he works and of the guinea pigs he keeps drive him slowly out of his mind. Vaculik’s tone—sardonic and hilarious, beautifully captured by Kaca Polackova’s translation—should be enough to keep cute frauds like Vonnegut in hiding for years to come. Comparable to Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, this is a book people are going to be passing around for a long time.
Rolling Stone, October 23, 1975