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Volume 5647

A Novel by Nigel Cox
A Collection of Reviews

I am glad share reviews on this book.
The author, Nigel Cox, sent me a copy when it first came out . . .
. . . just before he was asked by ERB, Inc. to cease publication.
Being a major ERB and Elvis fan I found this award-winning speculative novel
that cleverly melds the often fictional worlds of the
Jungle King with the King of Rock'n'Roll into alternate reality -- a fascinating fun romp.
Sadly, I never had a chance to meet the author in person,
since he died two years after the book was released.

I've collated a number of reviews of this unusual novel,
including one by regular ERBzine contributor, John Martin.
John's review differs a fair bit from most of the others featured.

Complying with the wishes of ERB, Inc., the publisher re-issued a revised edition of the popular book in 2011.
The re-issue came out under a different title -- Jungle Rock Blues -- and with different character names.
Excerpts from this book appear at

Click for full size

by John McCrystal
Transcribed for easier read by Bill Hillman
Given the grim reality of his day job at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, 
who can blame Nigel Cox for retreating into a fantastical mix of 
Tarzan and Elvis Presley for his new novel, writes John McCrystal.
Even his biggest fans would probably never have imagined that, prior to his emergence on the stage of popular music, the King was just plain King of the Jungle.

According to the alternative reality created by Nigel Cox in his new novel Tarzan Presley, Tarzan of the Apes came to America and was adopted by the Presley family, whose truck-driving son Elvis had recently been killed in a motor accident. The rest, as they say, is history -- apart from what Cox describes in the acknowledgements, quoting Maurice Gee, as "small changes in historical fact."

Cox is on the phone from Berlin. His voice is a little croaky; it's six in the morning there, and he confesses he was out a little later than he intended the night before. The room around him is chaos, as can be expected with three young children in a small apartment. But the consolation is that it's shaping up to be a beautiful spring morning. 

"I'd always thought Tarzan of the Apes could be written again, done in a different way," he says. "Despite the crappy nature of the book, the story is a marvellous story. I loved it as a teenager. There are two sentences from the project in my (1987) novel Dirty Work. They say: 'Tarzan pushed aside the manuka branch. In the clearing below, he could see the natives dancing in a fierce haka.' So I kind of started on imagining this."

For not only does Tarzan Presley merge the personae of Tarzan and Elvis Presley. It also shifts the setting for Tarzan's jungle childhood to New Zealand. Cox locates the band of gorillas who make him in a forested valley of the Wairarapa, and has the same valley stalked by wetas the size of cattle. 

These had their genesis in a character Cox  dreamed up to be a visitor's guide to the Bush World exhibit at Te Papa, Wana the Weta. "The idea of doing something with wetas had been around for a while. When I needed some kind of jungle adversary for Tarzan to fight, the Wetas just stepped into the breach."

But how did the King get in there? "When I finally re-read Tarzan of the Apes, it turns out actually that it has a really weak ending, because Edgar Rice Burroughs wanted to write a sequel. So he fudged the ending. The tory sort of fizzles out. So I was thinking, Tarzan's life needs a part two. As it happens, at that point, I read Peter Guralnick's biography of Elvis, Last Train to Memphis. The book opens with the scene where Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, Bill Black and Sam Phillips the producer, are in the studio, and they cook up Elvis's first single, That's All Right, Mama. And it's beautifully written and it's so . . . it's such an evocative moment. I spent a couple of days walking around thinking, what a great moment. And it suddenly occurred to me that there was a kind of primal energy about both these characters. They went together. They clicked."

Cox bridles somewhat when I suggested there was sound, shameless commercial sense in writing a novel about  -- however loosely -- Elvis Presley, given the King's huge and obsessive following. "I have to say, in all honesty, that that isn't the case. A critic once wrote about a book of mine, 'Nigel Cox puts popular culture in his novels because he thinks it will make them popular.' I mean, that is just stupid. Nigel Cox puts popular culture in his novels because he loves popular culture. He thinks that is where a lot of people, like himself, live. Pop culture really matters to me."

For this reason, he is thrilled with the book's garish cover. "[VUP publisher]Fergus Barrowman and I found some website that had images of 1950s comic covers on it. These were forwarded to this guy Rodney Smith, with some ideas about how images from the book would be laid out. But, actually, he just took our ideas apart and put them together again, and he's just made a classic job of that cover. I love it for itself, but I think it brings another dimension to the reading. Reading it with that on the cover, that will add something to it."

I ask whether someone with Cox's respect for history found it difficult to play so fast and loose with fact and fiction. Not at all, he replies: "Fiction is fiction. There's a school of thought that says I should be able to count on the facts in a novel. I don't see it like that."

It's easy to speculate that the outlet of fiction is vital to someone in Cox's present position. After a stint as a freelancer in the 1980s -- and a career as a novelist that produced two novels and saw him made Katherine Mansfield Fellow at Menton in 1991 -- he was appointed senior writer at the brand new Te Papa. And the Te Papa experience gave him the opportunity to work at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, where he is currently head of exhibitions and visitor communications. There's a lot of grim reality to rub up against in the museum. Who can blame him for retreating into fantasy in his spare time?

Cox is nearing the end of his contract -- which he has twice extended -- in Berlin. He's due back in New Zealand in November. He was offered a permanent post, but he and his wife get homesick, he says -- no surprise from someone whose novels exhibit such a strong sense of place -- and couldn't really contemplate being expats. 

Cox is still writing, he says. He rises most mornings at five, hammers away at the computer till just after seven, has a shower and helps with the children, then catches the train to work. He's just finished the draft of another novel. Given that his last, Skylark Lounge, was about alien abduction and the latest is about Elvis, I guess the new one will be about the Loch Ness Monster. 

"No, there are no unusual elements," Cox says firmly but adds: "On the other hand, Fergus Barrowman read it and said, 'Well, that just about creates a new form.' I swear this is not intentional. just the way they come out."

Ref: NZ Book Trade

Click for larger image
Tarzan Presley by Nigel Cox
Reviewed by David Larsen
Transcribed for easier read by Bill Hillman

Nigel Cox ~ Review by David Larson
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 arefact -- 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 junging 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 his 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-addled singer is a heart-breaking study of innocence betreayed. 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 possibilitlies 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.
The Merging of Tarzan and Elvis
By John Martin
“Tarzan Presley” is a book that was published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand in 2004 and has been somewhat difficult to obtain in the U.S. That is basically because Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. didn’t appreciate the fact that the trademarked name of Tarzan was used in the title, not to mention as the first name of the main character, and the company filed suit to stop further publication of the book.

  The story got new life in 2011, though, when the name of author Nigel Cox’s protagonist was changed to Caliban, and the name of the book to “Jungle Rock Blues.”

  A recent check of shows used copies of “Tarzan Presley” are now being advertised for as low as $34.82, while had Jungle Rock Blues for about $20.

  I obtained my own copies when they were a little bit more scarce, writing to a friend I have in New Zealand who liked to haunt used book stores. She quickly found a copy of “Tarzan Presley” for me and then chanced upon the alternate title of “Jungle Rock Blues” which at the time I did not even know existed.

  The completist might want one or both of these for his bookshelf. But the next question becomes, is the story worth reading?

  We all know that Edgar Rice Burroughs himself is worth reading. In fact, most of us are fans because we picked up one of his books and were instantly captivated and could not put it down. Then, still not quite satisfied, we had gone on to read everything else by ERB that we could get our hands on.

  There’s a couple of tiny reviews at amazon, one of which says, “When you mix the Tarzan legend (set in provincial New Zealand) and the surrealism of Elvis Presley's life, you get ‘Tarzan Presley.’ A lively, thoughtful and fun read, which flags a bit towards the end but revives with great elan.”

  So I was optimistic that this would actually be a “fun read.” Tastes vary. However, in my case I quickly realized that, for me, this would be a laborious read and that I would not be likely to go on to read any of the other books Nigel Cox had written.

  Because I couldn’t quite relate to Cox’s narrative style, I quickly decided not to read the story word-for-word. We all have a limited lifespan and I have other things I’d like to do with my time. I’ve never taken a course in speed-reading, but I did my own version of it through this story, scanning pages and getting the sense of what was being said and slowing down to read whole paragraphs here and there if they looked more interesting. Sometimes I would be intrigued enough to read a page or two in a row.

  Why did I find the book to be difficult to read? Maybe it was because, being already familiar with the “real thing,” I was in no mood to read this re-arranged version of Tarzan’s life.

  I’m not against pastiches, such as the new book by Will Murray. Nor am I against stories of other Tarzan-like characters that various authors have come up with. And we have all seen plenty of variations of the Tarzan character in movies which we have, nonetheless, enjoyed.

  Probably what bugged me is the revision of Tarzan’s actual origin, which Robin Maxwell also revised in her version of the classic origin story, “Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan.”

  So I guess where I stand is: Okay, go ahead and have fun with “further” adventures of Tarzan – just don’t mess with how he got into, and grew up in, “that bally jungle” in the first place!

  Then, too, the author attempts to merge the character of the fictional Tarzan with the character of the real-life Elvis Presley.

  His premise is that Tarzan grew up in the wilds of New Zealand and, later in life, became a famous singer who adopted the last name of Presley.

  One part of the book that I did think was somewhat clever was the author’s explanation of how young Tarzan learned to sing. In ERB’s version, we know Tarzan found the cabin of his dead parents and eventually figured out the purpose and meaning of the “little bugs” beneath the pictures in a book.

  Cox comes up with the idea that the little cabin was alongside a stream and that the elder Greystoke had rigged up some kind of a paddle wheel to harness the power of the creek to generate electricity, which powered a radio in the cabin (this story takes place decades later than ERB’s). The radio was tuned to a music station and, although he understood not the words, young Tarzan learned many of the songs, such as “You Are My Sunshine,” by mimicking the words and melodies he heard.

  Jane is a naturalist photographer who ventures into Tarzan’s jungle, where dwell the gorillas and the giant wetas, all by herself and, after meeting up with Tarzan, doesn’t wait too long to seduce him.

  They eventually show up in civilization where Tarzan gets auditioned and becomes a singer. Real-life characters from Elvis’s life, including Col. Tom Parker and Priscilla, are present in their customary roles, and perhaps there are more real-life characters whose names I didn’t recognize because I am not a student of the life of Elvis Presley.

  One could read this book and ask, at the end, what was the point? In ERB’s “Tarzan of the Apes,” the young child goes from a foundling who was susceptible to an early death in a multitude of ways, but who advanced in skill and education, mostly on his own, to the heights of the noblest man, even willing to sacrifice his own desires for the happiness of the woman he loved.

  Tarzan Presley simply survives the jungle, becomes a rock star, and then dies. End of story!

  Cox shows in many passages that he is familiar with the character as written by Edgar Rice Burroughs and it’s a wonder that he didn’t realize he was violating trademark laws by writing his own version of Tarzan. He may have been looking only at copyright laws, which had expired on many of the early books.

  But he refers frequently to the real Tarzan adventures and to its author and even, at one point in the story, has a passage where Edgar Rice Burroughs himself has an interview with Tarzan Presley! So this book may be more “fun” for that passage than for the entire story itself.

  In the “Jungle Rock” version, the passage with ERB is repeated (pgs. 202-204), but this time ERB writes a book titled “Caliban of the Apes.”

  The title isn’t the only thing that changes. Kala becomes Nudu, Kerchack becomes Terjick and Jane morphs into June. But in the Presley passages, names of real-life characters remain the same.

  By the way, even the real Elvis is in this book. Tarzan Presley and Caliban Presley both move into Elvis’s old bedroom and form a strong bond with Elvis’s parents.

  If you are a completist, you may want this book on your shelf. If you are a glutton for punishment, you may actually want to read it. On the other hand, you could take the money you would spend on this book and use it instead to buy something actually written by ERB.

Another Opinion
   The website of Victoria University Press, which republished Cox’s work under the title of “Jungle Rock Blues” in 2011, has a much more favorable review of the Tarzan Presley story than I have given above. Of course, that might be expected!   But, in the interests of “equal time,” here’s what they have to say:

  “Raised by gorillas in the wild jungles of New Zealand, scarred in battles with vicious giant wetas, seduced by a beautiful young scientist, discovered by Memphis record producer Sam Phillips and adored by millions, the dirt-to-dreams life story of Caliban is as legendary as his 30 number one hits. That story came to a dramatic end in 1977 when Caliban took his own life.

  “But now, in a sensational new development, a manuscript, written in old age by Caliban himself, has emerged which proves that his story didn’t end there. At last we can know: why did he leave us? What did it all mean to him? And -- for the first time -- what did it feel like to be Caliban?

  “Through its hypnotic fusing of two mythic lives this novel takes on some of the founding fables of our culture. In the guise of a joyous adventure story, it slyly poses questions about genius, fame, failure and love.

  “From its boldly funny opening page, the novel re-imagines the facts, and from then on the reader surrenders to one of the most extraordinary narrators in our literature: speculative, sexy, outlandish and tender. In a pulpy world, Jungle Rock Blues rewrites the lyrics of the familiar, giving us a wondrous new song."

Praise for Jungle Rock Blues:
  “Each new book from Nigel Cox is a surprise. But Jungle Rock Blues is a wild, slow-motion astonishment. – Bill Manhire

  “...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 to develop it into such an intelligent book it's like seeing someone suddenly make a successful film of Lord of the Rings in Miramar. ...This whole book rings true. It's superbly written and utterly original." – David Larsen, The NZ Herald

  “Nigel Cox was born in 1951 and died of cancer in 2006. One of the leading NZ writers of his generation, he was the author of six novels and an essay collection. For many years a bookseller at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland, he also had an important career in museum development as part of the project teams that created Te Papa and the Jewish Museum Berlin, where he spent five years, returning in 2005 to New Zealand and to Te Papa as Director of Experience.

  “Jungle Rock Blues, Nigel’s fourth novel, was released in 2004 to rave reviews from readers and critics, and was a runner-up at the 2005 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
  His fifth, Responsibility, was a runner-up in 2006, and his sixth, The Cowboy Dog, was published posthumously in 2006. Phone Home Berlin: Collected Non-Fiction appeared in 2007.

Sublimely imaginative, it defied all expectations. There's nothing superficial about this tale and the deeper you become entangled in the clever and romantic story the more you believe. Well, perhaps you suspend disbelief momentarily in order to discover whether the giant wetas ultimately devour the entire New Zealand population with the oozing poison. Or see Tarzan deal with the Colonel. Or wonder how he keeps his loincloth fastened with the adulation of 50's and 60's American teens. Nigel Cox is no slouch and he takes you on a journey that you will find hard to escape. It still makes me smile, three months after finishing this lovely read. ~ Amazon Review

Nigel Cox
(13 January 1951 – 28 July 2006)
Born in 1951 in Pahiatua, NZ, Cox grew up in the Wairarapa and Lower Hutt area. He worked in various jobs up until 1977; in the words of his author page on the Victoria University Press website, "His early working life reads like an author trying to find his way: advertising account executive, assembly line worker at Ford, deck hand, coalman, door-to-door turkey salesman, driver." His first two novels, Waiting for Einstein (1984) and Dirty Work (1987) were both written while he was working in bookstores in Wellington and Auckland. Both these novels have Wellington settings. For Dirty Work, Cox was awarded the Bucklands Memorial Literary Prize in 1988, as well as the 1991 Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship. From 1993, he took up work as senior writer at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. He published a number of articles during this time, but did not produce any new novels.

In 2000, he published Skylark Lounge and left New Zealand to become Head of Communication and Interpretation at the Jewish Museum Berlin. While in Berlin, Cox completed his fourth novel, Tarzan Presley (2004). The book was notable for fusing the life story of Elvis Presley and the fictional character Tarzan into a single original narrative. The book was nominated in the fiction category of the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in 2005, where it was judged runner-up, despite being embroiled in copyright controversy in the United States. The book was republished in 2011 under a different title -- Jungle Rock Blues -- and different character names.

Cox returned to New Zealand in March 2005. His fifth novel, Responsibility (2005), set in Berlin, combined elements from noir and detective fiction with a comedic edge. It was runner-up in the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. In 2006, Dirty Work was republished by Victoria University Press.

On 28 July 2006, just four days after attending the Montana New Zealand Book Awards where he was the Fiction runner-up, he died due to cancer which he had been battling for some time. He was working on the final draft of a sixth novel, The Cowboy Dog, when he died. It was published in November 2006.

ERBzine Editor Note:
I did a news item on this book in my News section at the time it was first released
– I don’t do that news section any longer since I now put all this stuff into our Facebook and Twitter accounts.
I also plugged it in the SWAG section where I also reprinted a review.

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