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Little Elvises

by Timothy Hallinan

Paperback, 347 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $14.95 |


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Excerpt: Little Elvises

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, had
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
"Do I sound like that?"
"A little."
"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
She said, "But the FBI files are kind of interesting."
"Excuse me?"
"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."
"But pretty."
"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
"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
16 timothy hallinan
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
"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 touchy 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
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 longdead
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't do 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, who stares 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.