Death in Venice . . . California
When you think of Venice in literature, what do you think of? John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice? The novels of Henry James? Charles and Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited? Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice? Well, you can add another book to your list. Vinton Rafe McCabe’s Death in Venice, California is being released today by The Permanent Press and is a modern revisiting of Thomas Mann’s 1912 classic.
In Thomas Mann’s novella, the well-to-do protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, walking the streets of Munich, suffering from a bit of bourgeois ennui, decides to make off to Venice to pick up his flagging spirits. Once ensconced there in a luxurious Venetian hotel, he spies a young Polish boy of unusual beauty staying there with his family and is so taken with this young person that he watches him day and night: in the hotel, on the beach and even takes to following him through the streets of Venice. In an effort to appear younger and more appealing to the young boy, he dies his hair and begins to paint his face and succeeds, of course, only in making himself appear more and more ridiculous. The danger of losing himself to his passions is not the only danger in the Adriatic city. There is plague in Venice and von Aschenbach is warned to leave, but he cannot pry himself away from his obsessive fascination with Tadzio, the young Polish boy. Needless to say, this tale of unrequited middle-aged passion doesn’t end well. Von Aschenbach never makes it back to Munich, to his well-ordered life, but instead perishes on a Venetian beach gazing upon his beloved.
So, too, is McCabe’s protagonist, Jameson Frame, a well-to-do man of letters. The book opens in a drear November New York as Frame wanders the streets full of ennui and longing for something different. He decides to go West rather than South, a nod to that particularly American direction of redemption and ends up in Venice, California. Once there, he soon falls in with a rag-tag bunch of boardwalk characters that both befriend and beguile him, but the most beguiling character of them all is the perfectly chiseled Chase, a young, tattooed skateboarder.
Chase is no Tadzio, that’s for sure, or is he? For innocence in twenty-first century America is a complicated thing. Chase has superficial street smarts, he does drugs, he sells himself (online of course), but his inner core is undeveloped and childlike. In any case, Frame falls hard for the former boy model and though his love, like von Aschenbach’s, remains unrequited, it certainly doesn’t go unconsummated.
As Frame falls deeper and deeper under Chase’s spell, gets his own tattoo (a “V” for Venice, Vinton, Victory?”) and is encouraged by a curious pair of local boardwalk women to have a variety of plastic surgeries, the reader understands this modern tale of middle-aged passion will also not end well. Though Frame spurns Chase at the last, but only after satisfying him in front of an audience of porn film hangers-on, he cannot survive the experience. He expires on this western shore, his heart and body exhausted by his Venetian adventure.
Vinton McCabe tells this tale in a lush, satisfying prose that sweeps the reader along from scene to scene. The book reads, much as the original Death in Venice did, like a dream, a fevered, unreal nightmare. Death in Venice, California may disturb, titillate or charm, but it will never bore you.
McCabe himself is also never boring. He comes to first-noveldom rather late in life at the tender age of 59. He is, however, a veteran of the world, of many worlds, the worlds of radio, theater, poetry, homeopathy (he has written ten books on the subject) and critique (he is a reviewer for the NY Journal of Books). Unlike his protagonist, Jameson Frame, McCabe doesn’t suffer from ennui, but is full of the energy of a life well-lived replete with both its victories and vicissitudes.
Readers of my blog who live in Connecticut area, however, don’t have to take my word for it. They can judge him for themselves. Vinton Rafe McCabe will be reading and talking about himself, about literature and writing at The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, CT on April 6th at 2 p.m.
Be there or be square.