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"Death in Venice, California" by Vinton Rafe McCabe

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Author Vinton Rafe McCabe retells the classic Thomas Mann story of misguided dotage, dazzled and weak, by placing it in sunny Southern California, and then quite openly acknowledging its profane nature. The symbol and thematic talisman of the Hanging Man Tarot card captures everything you need to know about this character and this novel.

The von Aschenbach character is named Jameson Frame in this entry, and the author portrays him as weak and corruptible, open to any and every suggestion, however unsound. Frame of course encounters an unbelievably beautiful youth, the most beautiful young man he’s ever seen, and the two have a tense, sometimes teasing, relationship, until its end in a seedy movie studio. Frame drinks excessively, takes drugs, has ill-advised cosmetic procedures done on his face and abdomen, all within just a few days, all the while panting after the youth, named Chase.

So Southern California serves as the inevitable backdrop for this distinguished man of letters’ pursuit; the “ideal” youth and longed-for instant gratification are achingly nigh. Mr. McCabe is very crafty about this: even the sand at Venice Beach threatens life and limb, with bicyclists and skaters speeding down the path one must cross, and the possibility of tainted needles beneath the sand itself. The parallels to the Mann novella make us reflect and consider:
the ideal youth has two older “sisters” who try to warn Frame to watch himself, even as they contribute to his demise. An epidemic is kept hush-hush in the original; here, the threat of hepatitis from a needle hangs in the air, but the tragic end of the protagonist is a highly individual demise.

I think it probable that Mr. McCabe focused so closely on his main character, almost in a stream-of-consciousness, intending to make us wince and look away. I felt the urge almost constantly, wondering about his ghastly choices, his destructive, will o’ the wisp willingness to do anything and everything with reckless disregard for his body. Apparently the pull of the dream, engendered in Southern California’s famous remove from reality, exerts just too strong a pull on our poor, diffident hero. On the other hand, I do consider it lovely, though – McCabe’s withering attack on the skin-deep culture so dominant there.

I’m glad I persevered; I did have the urge once or twice to toss it aside. The storytelling is consistently assured, the parallels to the sublime model serve Mr. McCabe’s ends admirably – nothing gratuitous about them – and the whole hangs together and delivers its punch squarely. This is a well-done piece.
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