Black Elvis, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Fiction, introduces musicians, artists, and travelers navigating transitional moments in their lives. With precise and vibrant writing, Becker unveils characters in complicated, sometimes surreal situations.
Meet Larry, freshly dumped by his fiancée, visiting his aunt in Italy, and posing as a guide to unsuspecting tourists in Florence. There’s Kaufman, who, on a dare, hits on a woman on her honeymoon—the kind of woman who steals her husband’s orthotics to aggravate his plantar fasciitis. And down at the blues jam there’s Black Elvis, with “big eyes the color of old ivory,” who is upstaged by a Korean bluesman from Memphis.
As bizarre as these situations come across, there are lessons here. Becker’s characters learn the hard way that, “The things you want most, the things you’ve waited longest for, ought to be the sweetest, but everyone knows this isn’t always true.” We watch, anxiously, as they accept this truism and then step precariously forward.
The characters in Hot Springs, Becker’s novel, have lessons to learn too. Becker mixes up an unlikely assortment of people when Bernice, a regretful, unsettled birthmother, abducts Emily, the daughter she gave up for adoption five years earlier. They flee from Colorado Springs to Tucson and land in Baltimore. Landis, Bernice’s accomplice and reluctant boyfriend, strings along, unable to shake his attraction to Bernice despite her erratic behavior. Back in Colorado Springs the abduction brings Tessa, the ultra-Christian adoptive mother, face to face with her less-than-perfect marriage. Tessa ultimately travels to Baltimore to reclaim her daughter and talk sense into Bernice.
“You must see that between the two of us, I’m the one with more to offer,” Tessa said.
“No,” said Bernice. “I must not. I used to think that. The whole time I was living with you, and for the next couple of years, that’s what I kept telling myself. I bought it—the whole package. Nice house, fresh air, squeaky-clean white people who owned mountain bikes and who would make sure she didn’t smoke and didn’t screw or do drugs. I almost believed it myself—almost. Then one day I realized it wasn’t true.”
The tragicomic drama reaches it’s climax in the gritty streets of Baltimore as a taxi waits for Tessa and Emily as Bernice tries to let go, again, of Emily. This scene, so honest and gut-wrenching, is characteristic of Becker’s thoughtful and intuitive writing. Who is the best mother for Emily? Judge for yourself, but Becker makes us root for everyone, even the most dysfunctional.
Black Elvis and Hot Springs are enormously engaging and beautiful in their intimacy, mystery, and unpredictability. We can only hope that a storyteller this gifted will soon deliver more.