By the Book: Gay Times in Venice and Hooker Satire

Although lit-crit folks will recognize the allusion to Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice in Vinton Rafe McCabe’s disturbing, but compelling, and poetic novel, Death in Venice, California (The Permanent Press), it’s T.S. Eliot’s sadly ironic poem Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock that sets the situation and tone (and provides quotations throughout).

Let it be said at once, however, that the story—about the degeneration and degradation of a well-off 50-something famous poet fleeing cold New York to vacation in Southern California, where he comes to acknowledge, act on and invite homosexuality, not to mention indulging in drugs, tattoos and plastic surgery—may not be for everyone (some may even find it pornographic). Let it also be said that the author diverges from Mann’s story, where the acclaimed aging writer Gustav von Aschenbach goes on holiday, becomes obsessed with Tadzio, a 14-year-old golden boy he sees, but never touches or even speaks to, and dies, from cholera—a moving story of imagined Dionysian surfeit and erotic and Platonic love set amid the gorgeous decay of Venice.

In McCabe’s capable hands, Jameson Frame’s growing manic fixation on Chase, the most beautiful young man he’s ever seen, a skateboarding male model, hustler and beach bum, becomes, as the author says, a story of “the burning concept of yearning,” jammed “into the craw of a staid, entitled, central character…set “loose unmoored in the modern world.” That world also includes older women and men, gay and straight, who hang around hotels and beach looking to connect themselves to someone or something. McCabe impressively captures that scene, but especially Frame by way of a slightly stilted style (“The perfection of the man…the golden nature of him”) and long sentences rich in exacting sensuous detail: “He inhaled deeply, the scent of ocean, salt, sweat, filth, and marijuana all mixed in the air and he raised his arms up over his head in a gesture, an exclamation of joy.” It’s the physical world McCabe describes, however, that proves most memorable—the looks, sounds and scents of artificial high life and seductive low life in Venice that still attract lost souls from God knows where to do God knows what, most of whom get sucked into the rhythms of the place.

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Satire, it’s been said, is driven by three Rs—risibility, recognition, reform: through laughter, targets are identified and hoped-for improvement is implied. It’s a difficult genre to bring off well. Some satires overtly savage hypocrisy and destructive behavior; others deliver a more subtle societal critique; and some, like Gulliver’s Travels, seem an odd mix of obvious and arcane (Book III is rarely discussed and the misogyny of Book IV does not seem to evolve from earlier sections). Then there are movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street whose over-the-top take on already extremist behavior offends and whose protagonist, while serving as the portal through which offensive, amoral and criminal acts are viewed (generating risibility and recognition), ends as unrepentant and corrupt as he began—a cynical conclusion that precludes reform.

Saving The Hooker (The Permanent Press) by Michael Adelberg exhibits other problems that can diminish well-intentioned satire—too many targets. These include “misogyny, academic dishonesty, political correctness, drugs, prostitution, sexual abuse,” not to mention talk shows and odd father-son relationships that don’t seem necessary to the plot or theme. Moreover, the narrator, Matthew Hristahalois (why this name?), a likeable character, becomes unsavory as the narrative develops. A post doc at a NYC university he’s watched Pretty Woman too many times and is finally prompted to pursue research that explores the discrepancy between “Hooker with a Heart of Gold” who is saved by a male—a frequent myth he sees in American literature and film—and the real-life conditions of most prostitutes. But once he meets a beautiful, clever hooker who calls herself Julia Roberts, he succumbs to the myth, then exploits it, a game the author himself gets into when he has “Saving the Hooker” be the title and content of a book Matthew writes about his experience. The whole is flawed but fun, with an inviting irreverent tone, on show from the beginning when Matthew introduces himself as on unpaid sabbatical, room and board free, courtesy of the Otisville Correctional Facility named by Forbes as “one of the 10 best places in the United States to go to prison.”
Probably true.

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