During our assigned reading for tomorrow’s class, it immediately became clear to me that Graceland, not unlike Midnight’s Children, is a novel about growing up. To learn a bit more about what it means to grow up in the context of this story, I took a closer look at the manhood ritual that is performed early on, in which Elvis is painted with traditional patterns, and is handed a bow and arrow, on the end of which a pathetic baby chicken is nearly dead…
The actual process of the ritual is extremely traditional. The men paint traditional markings onto the child, dress him in traditional clothes, and arm him with traditional weaponry. They claim that the goal of the ritual is for the child to kill an eagle. Yet, in reality, the ritual is much less awesome. The grown men prepare the ritual while passing around a bottle of whiskey, and joking about wanting more of it. The eagle in the ritual is replaced by a helpless baby chicken. To make the ritual even less impressive, Elvis himself did not even kill the bird. Within a couple of paragraphs, the ritual is over, and Elvis is one step closer to becoming a man in the eyes of his compatriots.
But where does his actual growing up occur? Clearly, it is not during this ritual. Throughout the ritual, Elvis is confused because he does not know what is going on. He is told to accept the shortcomings of the ritual (the chick rather than an eagle; the audience of young men), and then, quite suddenly, it ends. It is after the ritual — when Elvis joins his older cousins, Innocent and Godfrey, at the bar — that Elvis begins to understand what it is to be a man.
“Sitting on the counter in his grass skirt, drinking his Fanta and watching Godfrey and Innocent tease the girl behind the counter, Elvis felt like a man.”
At this point, Elvis clearly (he even says it) feels like a man. It is ironic, because Elvis does not have this feeling immediately after the ritual. It only comes to him while his relatives are flirting with a bartender in his presence.
This passage effectively introduces what I think will be an important theme in the novel: Elvis lives in a society that values tradition, yet, his surroundings seem to completely deviate from those values. Traditionally, Elvis is expected to hunt like a man; to face adversity with poise and composure. Yet somehow, his father is a drunk, and his adolescent relatives spend their evenings flirting at a bar. Elvis’ family suffers from delusion, which has them locked in a cycle of poverty. They think they maintain their traditional ways, and that that is enough for their children (particularly Elvis) to be healthy and happy.