Mike Burrell’s novel based on an Elvis- worshiping religious cult provides literary satisfaction

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.







An Unflinching Examination of the Horrors We Inflict: The Poor Children by April Ford

April L. Ford’s award-winning story collection, The Poor Children, is a courageous effort to remove the blinders we stubbornly cling to, the blinders that prevent us from seeing the pitiable conditions and situations that many hopelessly endure. In the worlds of these stories, cruelty, exploitation, and dysfunction are the norm, and the poor children are both victims and perpetrators.

The settings, subjects, and characters are diverse: teens in correctional facilities, families steeped in poverty and ignorance; inept, drunken parents; small towns outside the fringe of cultural normality; hapless correctional officers and social workers; a haunted museum ironically situated in a ski-resort town; beautiful, damaged children who are exploited because of their beauty or who use it for selfish gain; a fundamentalist cult where inbreeding has produced grotesque specimens and the opportunity for further exploitation. This collection is driven by dark impulses that we deny, ignore, or try to hide.

Ford writes about disturbing topics with authority. Most of the stories are delivered through first-person narrators, often kids in their early teens. In these she employs both male and female narrators whose voices are welded to the characters’ motives, environments, and tendencies. In the exceptions that unfold through a third-person voice, Ford handles the camera lens with admirable skill, moving seamlessly through time and in and out of characters’ minds.

Ford’s language in these stories is gritty and visceral while reflecting the beauty of spoiled fruit or faded blooms. The following example is from “Isabelle’s Haunting”:

First it was the youngest child, infant Valérie, who was found lying face down in her  crib in October. The autopsy revealed she had drowned in lung fluid, but the cause was neither viral nor bacterial. The following month it was the twins, toddlers Benoît and Pierre Lamont. They awoke in the middle of the night convulsing. … Twelve-year-old Isabelle was the next to go, but her death was never confirmed. Her bed was found empty on the December after the twin’s death, not a crease on the sheets or an imprint on the pillow. …

Readers who are brave enough to gaze unflinchingly upon the horrors we inflict upon ourselves and our children will savor this collection. The Poor Children is disturbing yet beautiful in its execution and the possibilities revealed when we rip down the mildewed curtains to let in the light.

The Poor Children by April Ford







An Ambitious Collection That Forces Introspection: Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey by Daniel Mueller

Dan Mueller’s collection of stories, Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey, presents an unforgettable cast of damaged characters who grope to reconstruct and make sense of their worlds. We relate to these people through shared humanity, recognizing, perhaps against our will, something of ourselves in each of them.

Among these tortured souls and “garden-variety” goof ups we find a boy at puberty’s threshold, seeking acceptance through a dangerous friendship that will scar him for life; a sexually adventurous and gifted adolescent, fascinated with politics, whose struggles with accepting himself continue into adulthood, largely as a result of his father’s rejection; a pair of young-adult sisters who develop unconventional mechanisms for coping with the protracted illness and death of their parents; a smart but miserable couple expecting a child, who unwittingly place their relationship of ten years in the crucible of a wedding party whose attendees have prospered through unsavory connections; a detective who, through misplaced motives and affections, struggles to construct a life after the unsolved disappearance of his preteen daughter; a seven-year-old boy, fascinated with snakes, whose innocence is destroyed when he witnesses a horrific rodeo accident and the disappointing behavior of his philandering father; a jaded professor whose fiancé, a beautiful rape victim, mysteriously attracts men, forcing him to realize that he “loved something in her” that he never wanted to see in his daughter; a college dropout hiking in Yellowstone—fantasizing and making up stories to project a free-spirited lifestyle—who gets more than he bargained for after hooking up with a couple whose marriage is on the brink of disaster.

The strongest piece, “I’m OK, You’re OK,” originally published in The Missouri Review, is more memoir than fiction. In it, Mueller places himself in the role of damaged protagonist, trying to construct a life from broken fragments. Ironically it takes the memory of a perverted clown in a Plymouth station wagon to establish the perspective through which Mueller can appreciate the gifts accrued through fearless contemplation of failures and mistakes. During a birthday party for his five-year-old daughter—thirty years after Mueller’s encounter with the clown—his father says, “That day you left us to hitchhike to Alaska, surely you couldn’t have imagined that one day all of this would be yours.” His father was referring to the life Mueller had “cobbled together out of nothing more than a desire to write.” For Mueller to write is to give of himself, buried chunks that are exhumed through blood and pain, the sharing of which gives life to stories that evoke a full range of emotion.

OMG! we think from the safety of our reading chairs. Saddened and disturbed, we indulge ourselves in cathartic laughter, chuckling as Mueller peels back layer after layer of masked-over pain to reveal hardened kernels of humanity, waiting for grace and receiving it in surprising ways. The elegant prose that constitutes these gems crackles with dark humor, witty dialogue, and irony. Dan Mueller, who also penned the prize-winning collection, How Animals Mate, has provided an ambitious collection that forces us to ask difficult questions about our own lives, a process that just might move us closer to acceptance of ourselves and others.

Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey