Reviewed by DAVID LARSEN
That thunder you hear is the drumming of 100,000 feet, racing to the nearest book store to pick up one of the most interesting novels of the year. You should join them.
But first join me: we need a moment's stupefied gaping. This book should not exist. I can't believe it does.
Granted, any novel is a staggeringly unlikely artefact — there are an infinity of possible novels, and a tiny fraction of them actually get written. But this one? "Raised by gorillas in the wild jungles of New Zealand, scarred in battles with vicious giant weta, seduced by a beautiful young scientist, discovered by Memphis record producer Sam Phillips and adored by millions, the dirt-to-dreams life story of Tarzan Presley is as legendary as his 30 number one hits."
In the film industry, this is the kind of brilliant high concept that would convince producers they were on to something very marketable. Tarzan! Elvis! Hey, what if they were really the same person? And what if this person faked his death and wrote a memoir in old age? So that all the myths about Elvis being still alive were, you know, really true! Only it would be Tarzan!
The film would be a disaster, and my job as a reviewer would be to sound as witty as possible while saying so. Whereas Nigel Cox's fourth novel has me jumping up and down excitedly because I can't believe how good it is. To take such an unlikely, attention-getting idea and develop it into such an intelligent book — it's like seeing someone suddenly make a successful film of Lord of the Rings in Miramar. Go back in time a decade and tell people about it, and you'd be laughed right back into the present.
Cox breaks his story into three sections, each of which presents challenges quite capable of sinking the novel.
The first third is the tale of a little boy raised by gorillas in the wilds of the Wairarapa, circa 1935. Cox could have treated the outrageous idea that gorillas should be roaming the New Zealand bush as a sort of magic realist game, so silly that we'd simply have to laugh and swallow it.
Instead he treats the gorillas, and Tarzan's life with them, the way the very best science fiction writers might: he builds them into hard reality by giving us lots of convincing detail, so that very soon we know how these gorillas live and smell, how the world looks to them and to the strange hairless ape they've adopted. Of course there are gorillas in New Zealand, how could we have doubted? Oh, and also cow-sized weta.
Having written a much more believable and thought-provoking account of a human raised by gorillas than Edgar Rice Burroughs ever managed, Cox then has his Kiwi Tarzan discovered, taken to America, adopted into the Presley family, and almost destroyed by mega-stardom.
The logic of the transition is impeccable, which is just one sign that Cox is in the demigod league. You know he's doing something deeply artificial right in front of you— grafting one legend on to another — and you can't see the stage machinery or hear the gears grinding. It all makes perfect sense.
That isn't to say it feels comfortable. Tarzan's slow morph from ape man to bloated, drug-raddled singer is a heart-breaking study of innocence betrayed. It also feels painfully arbitrary.
By this I don't mean that Cox fails to establish Tarzan credibly in his new, over-civilised role, but that Tarzan enters the human world almost as a tabula rasa, crackling with potential. What kind of understanding of humanity will this boy be capable of? What will he see in us, and in himself, that we aren't capable of seeing, because we're too used to ourselves? This is a character who could become anything. Watching all those possibilities dwindle down to the charade of the Vegas years is saddening.
By making Tarzan live every detail of Elvis' adult life, Cox turns him into an explanatory metaphor, a new way of thinking about a very strange career.
The third part of the novel is where Tarzan re-emerges as an independent character, old enough and experienced enough now to see all the wrong turns that led to Vegas, and determined to see what kind of life he can make for himself once he's escaped his fame. We're off the map here, past re-workings of Burroughs and re-tellings of the Elvis story, and Cox quietly gives the culmination of Tarzan's life its own proper form. It's neither sensational nor predictable; you read it and think, "Yes. That rings true."
This whole book rings true. It's superbly written and utterly original. You'll never look at a weta quite the same way again.
David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer
Reviewed by DAVID LARSEN