It is an honor for me to feature the following (second) chapter of Timothy Hallinan's wonderful novel Little Elvises.
Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of three series, featuring overeducated Los Angeles private eye Simeon Grist, Bangkok travel writer Poke Rafferty and San Fernando Valley burglar (and private eye for crooks) Junior Bender. His newest book, LITTLE ELVISES, begins when Junior Bender is forced by a corrupt cop to solve a murder for which it's likely the cop's uncle will be arrested. The uncle, Vinnie DiGaudio, made a fortune in the sixties discovering and promoting “little Elvises” – kids off the streets of Philadelphia with a vague resemblance to Elvis Presley.
This is the second chapter of LITTLE ELVISES. The book got a starred review from Booklist, which called it “hugely, splendidly entertaining,” and a rave from Associated Press (“compelling and heart-pounding”), and was just chosen Mystery Pick of the Month by BookPage. The series has been bought for film by Lionsgate.
An Original Void
The month’s motel was Marge ’n Ed’s North Pole at the north end of North Hollywood. The advantage of staying at the North Pole was that even the small number of people who knew I’d lived in motels since my divorce from Kathy would never figure I’d stoop that low. The disadvantage of staying at the North Pole was everything else.
Generally speaking, motels have little to recommend them, and the North Pole had less than most. But they made me a moving target, and I could more or less control the extent to which anyone knew where I was at any given time. I’d been divorced almost three years, and the North Pole was my 34th motel, and far and away the worst of the bunch.
I’d been put into Blitzen. In an explosion of creativity, Marge ’n Ed had decided not to number the rooms. Since Clement Moore only named so many reindeer in “The Night Before Christmas,” Marge ’n Ed had pressed Rudolph into service and then come up with some names on their own. Thus, in addition to the reindeer we all know and love, we had rooms named Dydie, Witzel, Tinkie, and Doris.
Doris wasn’t actually being passed off as a reindeer. She was Marge ’n Ed’s daughter. Marge, who grew confidential as the evenings wore on and the level in the vodka bottle dropped, told me one night that Doris had fled the North Pole with someone Marge referred to as Mr. Pinkie Ring, a pinkie ring being, in Marge’s cosmology, the surest sign of a cad. And sure enough, the cad had broken Doris’s heart, but would she come home?
Not Doris. Stubborn as her father, by whom I assumed Marge meant Ed, whom I always thought of as ’n Ed. Ed was no longer with us, having departed this vale of sorrows six years earlier. It was probably either that or somehow orchestrate a global ban on vodka, and death undoubtedly looked easier.
The string of Christmas lights that outlined the perimeter of Blitzen’s front window blinked at me in no discernible sequence, and I’d been trying to discern one for days. They sprang to life whenever anyone turned on the ceiling light, which was the only light in the room. I’d tried to pull the cord from the outlet, but Marge ’n Ed had glued it in place.
“YouTube-dot-com,” Rina said on the phone. “Y-O-U-Tube, spelled like tube. Aren’t you there yet?”
Something unpleasant happens even to the most agreeable of adolescents when they talk to adults about technology. A certain kind of grit comes into their voices, as though they’re expecting to meet an impenetrable wall of stupidity and might have to sand their way through it. Rina, who still, so far as I knew, admired at least one or two aspects of my character, was no exception. She sounded like her teeth had been wired together.
“Yes,” I said, hearing myself echo her tone. “I’ve managed somehow to enter the wonderland of video detritus and I await only the magical search term that will let me sift the chaff.”
“Dad. Do you want help, or not?”
“I do,” I said, “but not in a tone of voice that says I’d better talk really slowly or he’ll get his thumb stuck in his nostril again.”
“Do I sound like that?”
“Sorry. Okay, the interview is called ‘Vincent DiGaudio Interview.’ Have you got that?”
“Slow down,” I said. “Did you just ask me whether I can follow the idea that the Vincent DiGaudio Interview is called ‘Vincent DiGaudio Interview’?”
“Oh.” She made a clucking noise I’ve never been able to duplicate. “Sorry again.”
“Maybe I’m being touchy,” I said. “Thanks. Anything else?”
“Not on video. I’ll email you the links to the other stuff, the written stuff. There’s not much of it. He doesn’t seem to have wanted much publicity.”
“Wonder why,” I said. I figured there was no point in telling her I was going to be getting involved with a mob guy. She might worry.
She said, “But the FBI files are kind of interesting.”
“Somebody used the Freedom of Information Act,” said my thirteen-year-old daughter, “to file for release of a stack of FBI files on the outfit’s influence in the Philadelphia music scene. Since DiGaudio’s still alive and since he never got charged, his name is blacked out, but it’s easy to tell it’s him because a lot of the memos are about Giorgio. The files are on the FBI’s site, but I’ll send you the link so you don’t have to waste time poking around.”
“The FBI site?” I said. “Giorgio?”
“Wake up, Dad. Everything’s online.”
Was I, a career criminal, going to log onto the FBI site? “Who’s Giorgio?”
“The most pathetic of DiGaudio’s little Elvises. Really pretty, I mean fruit-salad pretty, but he couldn’t do anything. Tone deaf. He stood on the stage like his feet were nailed to the floor. But really, really pretty.”
“I don’t remember him in the paper you wrote.” I was taking a chance here, because I hadn’t actually read all of it.
“I didn’t talk about him much. He was so awful that he kind of stood alone. He wasn’t an imitation anything, really. He was an original void.”
“Yum yum yum.”
“Thanks, sweetie. I’ll check it out.”
“You can look at Giorgio on YouTube, too,” she said. “Although you might want to turn the volume way, way down.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “It’s under ‘Giorgio.’”
“Try ‘Giorgio Lucky Star.’ That was the name of his first hit. ‘Lucky Star,’ I mean. Little irony there, huh? If there was ever a lucky star, it was Giorgio. If it hadn’t been for Elvis, he’d have been delivering mail. Not that it did him much good in the long run, poor kid. Anyway, search for ‘Giorgio Lucky Star.’ Otherwise you’re going to spend the whole evening looking at Giorgio Armani.”
“Is your mom around?”
A pause I’d have probably missed if I weren’t her father.
“Um, out with Bill.”
“Remember what I told you,” I said. “Whatever you do, don’t laugh at Bill’s nose.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Bill’s nose.”
“Just, whatever happens, next time you see Bill’s nose, don’t laugh at it.”
“Daddy,” she said. “You’re terrible.” She made a kiss noise and hung up.
It was okay that I was terrible. She only called me Daddy when she liked me.
I’ve had more opportunity than most people to do things I’d regret later, and I’ve taken advantage of a great many of those opportunities. But there was nothing I regretted more than not being able to live in the same house as my daughter.
I’d wanted to stay in Donder, but it was taken.
“Donder” is a convincing name for a reindeer. “Blitzen” sounds to me like the name of some Danish Nazi collaborator, someone who committed high treason in deep snow. But Donder was occupied, so I was stuck with either Blitzen or Dydie. I chose Blitzen because it was on the second floor, which I prefer, and it had a connecting door with Prancer, which was unoccupied, so I could rent them both but leave the light off in one of them, giving me a second room to duck into in an emergency, a configuration I insist on. This little escape hatch that has probably saved me from a couple of broken legs, broken legs being a standard method of getting someone’s attention in the world of low-IQ crime. And as much as I didn’t like the name “Blitzen,”there was no way I was going to stay in Prancer. It would affect the way I thought about myself.
Blitzen was a small, airless rectangle with dusty tinsel fringing the tops of the doors, cut-outs of snowflakes dangling from the ceiling, and fluffs of cotton glued to the top of the medicine cabinet. A pyramid of glass Christmas-tree ornaments had been glued together, and then the whole assemblage
had been glued to a red-and-green platter, which in turn had been glued to the top of the dresser. Marge ’n Ed went through a lot of glue. The carpet had been a snowy white fifteen or twenty years ago, but was now the precise color of guilt, a brownish gray like a dusty spiderweb, interrupted here and there by horrific blotches of darkness, as though aliens with pitch in their veins had bled out on it. The first
time I saw it, it struck me as a perfect picture of a guilty conscience at 3 a.m.: you’re floating along in a sort of pasteurized colorlessness, and wham, here comes a black spot that has you bolt upright and sweating in the dark.
I have a nodding acquaintance with guilty consciences.
When Andy Warhol predicted that everyone in the future would be famous for fifteen minutes, he was probably thinking about something like YouTube. What a concept: hundreds of thousands of deservedly anonymous people made shaky, blurry videotapes of their pets and their feet and each other lip-synching to horrible music, and somebody bought it for a trillion dollars. But then all this idea-free content developed a kind of mass that attracted a million or so clips that actually had some interest
value, especially to those of us who occasionally like to lift a corner of the social fabric and peer beneath it.
Vincent DiGaudio Interview popped onto my screen in the oddly saturated color, heavy toward the carrot end of the spectrum, that identifies TV film from the seventies. Since I was going to meet DiGaudio in about forty minutes, I took a good look at him. In 1975, he’d been a beefy, ethnic-looking guy with a couple of chins and a third on the way, and a plump little mouth that he kept pursing as though he had Tourette’s Syndrome and was fighting an outbreak of profanity. His eyes were the most interesting things in his face. They were long, with heavy, almost immobile lids that sloped down toward the outer corners at about a thirtydegree angle, the angle of a roof. His gaze bounced nervously
between the interviewer and the camera lens.
Vincent DiGaudio had a liar’s eyes.
As the clip began, the camera was on the interviewer, a famished woman with a tangerine-colored face, blond hair bobbed so brutally it looked like it had been cut with a broken bottle, and so much gold hanging around her neck she wouldn’t have floated in the Great Salt Lake. “. . . define your talent?” she was saying when the editor cut in.
“I don’t know if it was a talent,” DiGaudio said, and then smiled in a way that suggested that it was, indeed, a talent, and he was a deeply modest man. “I seen a vacuum, that’s all. I always think that’s the main thing, seeing in between the stuff that’s already there, like it’s a dotted line, and figuring out what
could fill in the blanks, you know?” He held his hands up, about two feet apart, presumably indicating a blank. “So you had Elvis and the other one, uh, Jerry Lee Lewis, and then you had Little Richard, and they were all like on one end, you know? Too raw, too downtown for nice kids. And then you had over on the other end, you had Pat Boone, and he was like Mr. Good Tooth, you know, like in a kids’ dental hygiene movie, there’s always this tooth that’s so white you gotta squint at it. So he was way over
there. And in the middle, I seen a lot of room for kids who were handsome like Elvis but not so, you know, so . . .”
“Talented?” the interviewer asked.
“That’s funny,” DiGaudio said solemnly. “Not so dangerous. Good-looking kids, but kids the girls could take home to meet Mom. Kids who look like they went to church.”
“Elvis went to church,” the interviewer said.
DiGaudio’s smile this time made the interviewer sit back a couple of inches. “My kids went to a white church. Probably Catholic, since they were all Italian, but, you know, might have been some Episcopalians in there. And they didn’t sing about a man on a fuzzy tree or all that shorthand about getting—can I say getting laid?”
“You just did.”
“Yeah, well that. My kids sang about first kisses and lucky stars, and if they sang about a sweater it was a sweater with a high school letter on it, not a sweater stretched over a big pair of—of—inappropriate body parts.” He sat back and let his right knee jiggle up and down, body language that suggested he’d
rather be anywhere else in the world. “It’s all in the book,” he said. “My book. Remember my book?”
“Of course.” The interviewer held it up for the camera. “The Philly Miracle,” she said.
“And the rest of it?” Di Gaudio demanded.
“Sorry. The Philly Miracle: How Vincent DiGaudio Reinvented Rock and Roll.”
“Bet your ass,” DiGaudio said. “Whoops.”
“So your—your discoveries—were sort of Elvis with mayo?”
“We’re not getting along much, are we? My kids weren’t animals. I mean lookit what Elvis was doing on the stage. All that stuff with his, you know, his—getting the little girls all crazy.”
The interviewer shook her head. “They screamed for your boys, too.”
He made her wait a second while he stared at her. “And? I mean, what’s your point? Girls been screaming and fainting at singers since forever. But you knew if a girl fainted around one of my kids he wouldn’t take advantage of it. He’d just keep singing, or maybe get first aid or something.”
She rapped her knuckles on the book’s cover. “There were a lot of them, weren’t there?”
DiGaudio’s face darkened. “Lot of what?”
“Your kids, your singers. Some people called it the production line.”
“Yeah, well, some people can bite me. People who talk like that, they don’t know, they don’t know kids. These were crushes, not love affairs. The girls weren’t going to marry my guys, they were going to buy magazines with their pictures on the front and write the guys’ names all over everything, and fifteen minutes later they were going to get a crush on the next one. So there had to be a next one. Like junior high, but with better looking boys. Girl that age, she’s a crush machine, or at least they were back then. These days, who knows? Not much innocence around now, but that’s what my kids were. They were innocence. They were, like, dreams. They were never gonna knock the girls up, or marry them and drink too much and kick them around, or turn out to be as gay as a lamb chop, or anything like guys do in real life. They were dreams, you know? They came out, they looked great, they sang for two and a half minutes, and then they went away.”
“And they did go away. Most of them vanished without a trace. Are you still in touch with any of them?”
It didn’t seem like a rough question, but DiGaudio’s eyes bounced all over the room. He filled his cheeks with air and blew it out in an exasperated puff. “That ain’t true. Some of them, they’re still working. Frankie does lounges in Vegas. Eddie and Fabio, they tour all over the place with a pickup band, call themselves Faces of the Fifties or something like that. They’re around, some of them.”
“And Bobby? Bobby Angel?”
“Nobody knows what happened to Bobby. Somebody must of told you that, even if you didn’t bother to read the book. Bobby disappeared.”
“Do you ever think about Giorgio?”
The fat little mouth pulled in until it was as round as a carnation. “Giorgio,” he finally said. He sounded like he wanted to spit. “Giorgio was different. He didn’t like it, you know? Even when he was a big star. Didn’t think he belonged up there.”
“A lot of people agreed with him.”
DiGaudio leaned forward. “What is this, the Cheap Shot Hour? Even somebody like you, after what happened to that poor kid, even someone like you ought to think a couple times before piling on. Who are you, anyway? Some local talent on a TV station in some two-gas-station market. I mean, look at this set, looks like a bunch of second graders colored it—”
“This is obviously a sore topic for—”
“You know, I came on this show to talk about a book, to tell a story about music and Philadelphia, about when your audience was young, about a different kind of time, and what do I get? Miss Snide of 1927, with your bleeping jack-o’-lantern makeup and that lawn-mower hair—”
“So, if I can get an answer, what are your thoughts about Giorgio?”
DiGaudio reached out and covered the camera lens with his hand. There were a couple of heavily bleeped remarks, and then the screen went to black.
“My, my,” I said. “Touchy guy.” I glanced at my watch.
DiGaudio lived in Studio City, way south of Ventura Boulevard, in the richest, whitest part of the Valley. I had another thirty-five minutes, and the trip would only take fifteen. I typed in Giorgio Lucky Star.
And found myself looking at fifties black-and-white, the fuzzy kinescope that’s all we have of so much early television, just a movie camera aimed at a TV screen, the crude archival footage that the cameraman’s union insisted on. Without that clause in their contract, almost all the live television of the fifties would be radiating out into space, the laugh tracks of the long dead, provoking slack-jawed amazement among aliens sixty light years away, but completely lost here on earth.
Even viewed through pixels the size of thumbtacks, Giorgio was a beautiful kid. And Rina was right: he couldn’tdo anything.He stood there as though he’d been told he’d be shot if he moved, and mouthed his way through two minutes of prerecorded early sixties crap-rock. Since the face was everything and he wasn’t doing anything with the rest of himself anyway, the cameras pretty much stayed in closeups, just fading from one shot to another. No matter where they put the camera, he looked good. He had the same classical beauty as Presley. Like Presley, if you’d covered his face in white greasepaint and taken a still closeup, you’d have had a classical statue, a cousin of Michelangelo’s David.
But unlike the sculpted David, staring into his future with the calm certainty of someone who knows that God is holding his team’s pom-poms on the sidelines, Giorgio had the look you see in a crooked politician who’s just been asked the one question he’d been promised he wouldn’t be asked, in the athlete who’s been told he has to take the drug test he knows he’s going to fail.
Giorgio was terrified.