In his novel The Land of Grace, author Mike Burrell pulls off an impressively satisfying balancing act. Contrasting elements are in play throughout: light against dark, comic narrative against serious commentary, slapstick humor against shocking violence. Fully rounded dynamic characters are cast in textured relief against stock Southern figures. Once inside these pages, the reader suspends disbelief on the promise of comedy awaiting inside a religious cult that worships the risen Elvis—a premise made plausible within the rural Alabama setting—only to discover that the humorous elements are mixed with violent, tragic images. The cult’s carefully constructed village, built around a facsimile of Graceland, becomes a Theatre of the Absurd, where broad comedy and frightening tragedy are locked in a frenzied dance of life and death.
The protagonist, Doyle Brisendine, is a talented Elvis impersonator whose skill and attention to detail are barely enough to support him in a time when his prospective audience is dwindling. The novel opens during his latest show at an out-of-the-way Amvets club in Willow Ruth, Alabama. The audience is especially appreciative, and he has mysteriously been promised more than six times his usual fee to come there and perform.
In the dilapidated dressing room after the show, Doyle is skeptical that he will ever be paid the promised amount when the manager, aptly named Parker, knocks on the door. The mystery deepens when Parker hands him an envelope fat with cash and informs him that someone sent by his “sponsor” wants to see him. The someone is a beautiful woman who seductively suggests they have dinner together.
Doyle, taken aback by her pink ’55 Cadillac Fleetwood, nevertheless settles in the plush passenger seat, setting into motion the bizarre series of events that propel the narrative. He finds himself, after the mysterious woman drives him over miles of dark and winding Alabama back roads, inside the gates of the Graceland replica, the headquarters of Our Lady of TCB Church. The details of the establishment of this “church” and its operation are linked to the escalating events of the narrative as they inexorably unfold.
At the center are Mama, the mastermind, and her staff of “apostles,” modeled and named after characters from the Memphis Mafia. Before she became a prophet, Mama was Carolyn Susan Haney, the daughter of the wealthiest man in Willow Ruth and the surrounding counties. After living most of her adult life up north married to a wealthy Jewish businessman, deaths bring her back to her childhood home. Her father’s factory is now closed, and she is shocked to find her father’s “children,” those who were previously in his benevolent employment, now forced after the closing of the factory to live in a ramshackle trailer park, victims of foreign competition and an opportunistic slum lord. After much soul-searching, she envisions a way to provide salvation for these people through her enduring love of all things Elvis and her inherited fortune. She concludes that “all you really needed to be a prophet was . . . to find a bunch of people who really needed a prophet and the chutzpah to call yourself one.”
This background provides plausibility for the plot as well as opportunity for Burrell to explore satirically the phenomenon of religious extremism and how cults are able to indoctrinate and control their needy converts. Our Lady of TCB Church is begun out of desire to help poor agonized souls, but, through the rising megalomania of its founder, becomes oppressive, self-serving, and evil. The careful reader will be able to draw many parallels. The church has its own set of scriptures, the Gospel of Gladys, penned by Carolyn as she was becoming Mama. Practices such as shunning and the sexual abuse of young girls are not just accepted but condoned and celebrated.
The triangle of major characters is completed by Rhonda, the young woman who takes Doyle from the Amvets club to the church headquarters. She has fulfilled key roles throughout the history of the church but has now fallen out of favor with Mama. Her mission, to bring in the next incarnation of their risen lord, is a way for her to regain her former status alongside the apostles.
Romantic attraction grows between Doyle and Rhonda, and the reader, hoping they’ll be able to escape the cult’s clutches and build a life outside of “Graceland,” eagerly follows them as the escalating action turns dark. The white-knuckle suspense of the final act is the result of unpredictable twists and turns and surprisingly graphic imagery. The novel becomes a fast-paced action thriller, a quality that is earned by cleverly placed details and foreshadowing. By the time the action reaches a climax, Burrell has shown himself to be masterful at this kind of writing, as well as witty dialogue, social commentary, and satire. The final scenes fulfill Aristotle’s requirements for a perfect ending: unexpected, yet the inevitable result of what has gone before.
The deeper you delve into The Land of Grace, the more you’ll appreciate the carefully constructed plot, the nuanced characters, the humor, the action, and the skill of Mike Burrell in pulling it all together. Go ahead, step inside that elaborate gate. Salvation from the mundane awaits.