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Volume 5647

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. (1)
  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.

(1) I see a bit of a deception here, since the 2004 book was not titled “Jungle Rock Blues,” as noted earlier in my review. They were probably under some type of restriction from even writing the words “Tarzan Presley,” but they could have at least said “another title.”—J.M.

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:
Glad to have a full review on this book. The author sent me a copy when it first came out . . . just before he was asked by  ERB, Inc. to cease publication.
I did a news item on it in my News section at the time – 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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