Saturday, March 22, 2014

Death in Venice, California by Vinton Rafe McCabe

Full disclosure: Vinton is a friend of mine. We have been members of the same writer's group for several years. I watched this book evolve from first draft to final manuscript. He began it as a NaNoWriMo project and, I believe, had essentially finished it before the November 30 deadline with several thousand words to spare.

It takes off from, of course, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and if you are familiar with Mann's book, Vinton's book will be that much richer an experience. But you don't need to know Mann, to appreciate the extraordinary experience of Death in Venice, California.

In Jameson Frame, Vinton has created a man of letters who is nearing the end of his alphabet. Jameson's reputation is based on three books, "Pennyweight," which was "largely allegorical and altogether humorless"; "The Antecedents," which was "his rather exhaustive and thoroughly sordid telling of his family history"; and "On Scrimshaw and Others," a slim volume of poetry elegantly published by a university press. Now in his mid-forties, with an independent income, and buffeted by New York crowds and winter weather, Jameson decides to treat himself to a sun-filled respite by the sea and flies to California.

In Venice, Jameson meets Elsa and Vera on the beach, a couple of bohemian housemates. They seem to find him enchanting and invite him to one of their wine-and-marijuana parties. They promote a relationship with Chase, a skateboarding nude-and-underwear model, who is lovely and who knows it. As Vinton writes: "If the source of his shifting personal power lay in his eyes, the source of the Nile that was his beauty was in his lips. Lips that countered everything else on his face. Full, feminine lips that pouted and purred, that were colored a perfectly, ridiculously pinkish pink, and shaped in a flapper's cupid's blow. Placed within the context of his dark masculinity—the purest white skin set against jet black hair that disappeared, along with the inky mesh of his scruff, in the night—the pinky pink lips, a set that might have been dubbed kissable in a television commercial were they located in a teen-aged blonde's face, were utterly, shockingly, endlessly enchanting when placed within the hard-jawed face of the youth."

Jameson is besotted by Chase who, apparently, sees the older man as an open wallet and a figure on which he can scrawl his own mark. In one of their first outings together, Jameson returns to his luxury beach-front hotel with a tattooed "V" on his leg. By the end of the book, Jameson is even willing to participate in Chase's "Big Art"—pornographic videos.

Death in Venice, California is, as suggested by the paragraph I quoted above, wonderfully visual; I marvel at the writing. It is also, I believe, a profoundly sad and moving story, the portrait of a man who either does not know himself or does not care what happens to him as long as he can indulge in a a beauty that can only bring his destruction. No matter. Even if Vinton were not my friend, I would recommend the book. 

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