Waiting for Elvis

13 May 2009

Waiting for Elvis
by David Elias
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.00 ISBN 9-781550-503944

Winnipeg writer David Elias is making a name for himself as a writer of increasingly interesting books. Coteau Books recently published his fourth, the novel Waiting for Elvis, and because I was ardently cheering for these hardluck characters, I had a hard time putting the book down.

This time Elias focuses on the people that own “Betty’s Diner — Home of the Giant Cinnamon Bun,” a typical highway truck-stop, and on those who pass through its humble doors. Truckers and the odd tour bus of casino-patronizing seniors are its major clientele, but Betty and husband Arty’s miscreant son, Tony, and the criminal crowd he chums with, also make appearances. When a strange, mute, and beaten man stumbles into the diner from the surrounding forest, nothing is ever the same again.

For Betty, this is a wonderful thing. As a child she lived a life of relative privilege, and was known as “Elizabeth”. An alcoholic mother living in a squalid Winnipeg flophouse is a constant reminder of how far, and quickly, her life regressed. Now Betty’s bored, and thinks that “a bulldozer might be the best thing that ever happened” to the diner. Her family is a crucible. She has a hard time loving her only child: “She and Arty have made all the rounds with the social worker and psychologists. Put up with all the looks from the teachers and principals at school. Jumped through all the hoops with the probation officers and lawyers and priests. It’s been one thing after another with him right from the start … She could never understand how it happened that he got so bad so fast … Making her cry is what Tony had always done best.” Elias does a laudable job of showing how Tony’s evil and self-destructive ways began at an early age. It’s shocking.

And there are more shocks. Sal, who was horribly abused by his mother’s partner, “Clothespin Harry,” now lives like an animal in the forest beside the highway. He exists on the food travelers discard, and has created a shanty among the trees. But Sal’s ghosts have followed him. He has visions, and nightmares, and has created a “garden of pain” with car accident refuse (twisted metal, shattered glass, chains) which he’s strung from the pines. When his inner pain is too much, he “[Runs] into that garden of pain full tilt … Make it cut … Make it bleed … A crankshaft comes out of nowhere … He tackles a chrome bumper, then a rusted muffler … crushes the muscle and bone of his shoulder and still he will not stop.”

Now here’s the wondrous thing: Elias’s novel is a story of redemption. Betty “Sees there the thing [Sal] carries around with him always, the bold beauty of his quiet humility.” And she makes a kind of unexpected peace with her son.

Waiting for Elvis is the kind of book that would inspire much discussion and debate; it would be a terrific title for book clubs.


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