Death in Venice, California – Vinton Rafe McCabe (The Permanent Press)

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At the ripe old age of fifty-seven, the last thing I want to read is about an older man becoming obsessed with a younger man. It’s not that it’s too close to home for me; rather it’s too far from my reality. Oh, they’re lovely to look at, but I think I’m too much a pragmatist to believe anyone that age will be obsessed by me in return. And at this stage of the game, it’s reciprocation or nothing, baby. But this theme is as old in gay literature as it is in straight reads, the granddaddy of them all being Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, splendidly retold and transplanted to sunny California in Vinton Rafe McCabe’s Death in Venice, California.

Well-known poet Jameson Frame departs Manhattan for his annual getaway,. Anxious for a change from his usual cabin hideaway, he opts for Venice, California, where he surrounds himself in luxury at the Hotel des Bains. He sees young underwear model/skateboarder/internet celebrity Chase on the beach and is instantly enamored of him. They get a chance to meet later at a party hosted by beach mavens Vera and Elsa, and Frame’s fate is sealed. He gets a little Botox, a little lipotuck, a little tattoo action. But does he get Chase? Well, yes. And no. However, he does get more than he bargained for.

The parallels between this and Mann’s novella are many, as this is obviously a retelling of that story. However, one huge difference is that Aschenbach and Tadzio never have any contact in the original, whereas Frame and Chase have a great deal of interaction. I’ve been trying to decide whether this is a good difference or a bad one and have come to the conclusion that it’s neither. It’s simply a difference. Their isolation within their own spheres lent a poignancy and a subtlety to Mann’s original that any contact would have undercut (and is lacking here–though I don’t believe McCabe seeks either of those qualities). And I’m not sure today’s reader would be satisfied with the two main characters not interacting. It would have been an interesting experiment to keep those parameters the same, but I’m not certain the result would have been as readable. Because Death in Venice, California is highly readable.

McCabe’s prose is slyly witty and smart, literary without becoming overly esoteric and philosophical without overreaching. Jameson Frame is a wonderfully detailed character, well-observed and fully inhabited. Chase is less inhabited, but he’s also less complicated. His motives are clear. Frame’s are more muddied. However, McCabe works the power imbalance between these two characters in such a way that watching them together is a delight, even though you know Frame is at a distinct disadvantage. The remaining characters are minor and should stay so. This is The Frame and Chase Show, and McCabe never distracts from that. Frame’s visits to the doctor of youth, Magellan, for Botox around the eyes and lipo around the tummy are as funny as the final sex scene with Chase is…well, cannibalistic. I can’t possibly tell you why because I haven’t figured it out yet, but the sex there reminds me of the climax of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer.

My only, admittedly minor, quibbles is that the beach ladies, Elsa and Vera, who throw the party where Frame and Chase meet, never seem to go anywhere once they’re introduced and initiate Frame’s conversion to California culture. They don’t figure prominently in the end, and I thought they would. Less problematic is the piece Frame begins to write during his stay in Venice, “The Waters of Venice, California,” which serves, for a few pages at least, as an interesting alternative viewpoint of the narrative (even though both are from Frame’s point of view). I was disappointed we didn’t get more snippets from this work, and the fact that we didn’t makes me wonder all the more why we got what we did.

But neither of those should detract from what is a genuinely interesting, altogether engrossing takeoff of Death in Venice. Even if you’ve not read Thomas Mann’s original, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this modern update. Highly recommended.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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