John Tesarsch, a barrister turned writer, almost puts the case for the defence when discussing When Jokers Were Kings, his novel about an Elvis Presley impersonator. “There is nothing easy about writing comedy,” he said in a recent interview. Fortunately he does not need to enter a guilty plea. This novel, his fourth and his first foray into romantic comedy, is gently funny and quietly thoughtful.
The wannabe Elvis is Engelbert Jones, a mail clerk in a Melbourne bank. Bertie is late Elvis when it comes to the bathroom scales. He lives with his mother and has not had a serious romantic relationship. At work he is a nobody. He brings to mind “the lost and almost impossibly sad expression of a basset hound”. His life is one of “dull normality”.
The Melbourne author – whose previous novels are The Philanthropist (2010), The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman (2015) and Dinner With the Dissidents (2018) – has a knack for summing up characters in a few sentences. Perhaps it’s a fringe benefit of his courtroom days.
Here, the potential romance is between Bertie and Jasmine Patel, an assistant to a bank executive, who is a Michael Jackson impersonator. A bank Christmas party sets up what follows. They each don their costumes – white jumpsuit for Bertie, Thriller jacket for Jazz – and take to the stage and sing.
She is good and so is he. This inspires Bertie’s mate, Trevor, a bankrupt entrepreneur and “expert liar” who works in the stationery department. He soon does his own impersonation of Colonel Tom Parker, “hires” a Cadillac and lines up pub gigs for Presley and Jackson.
The timing is bad for Jazz. It’s 2019 and Leaving Neverland, the documentary about Jackson’s alleged abuse of children, has been released. It’s also bad for any bank employee, as the royal commission into banking misconduct is in full swing. Appropriately, the final stop on the road trip is Ned Kelly country.
The author brings malignant capitalism, whistleblowers, colonial criminals who some consider heroes, the king of rock’n’roll and the shamed king of pop together in a rollicking story that goes lots of places but leads to one question about Bertie and Jazz: can they or can’t they help falling in love?
Affirm Press, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2022 as "When Jokers Were Kings: A love story, John Tesarsch".
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