Poet and writer Frank O’Hara was deeply affected by the death of young James Dean in a crash on his way to race his Porsche Spyder in Salinas, California. Just days after the 1955 accident, O’Hara crafted a series of elegies, in one of which a phrase appears that serves as the title of Junior Burke’s new novel The Cold Last Swim.
The tragedy elevated Dean to icon status for a generation of youth, girls swooning in romantic grief over what-might-have-been (for him and, in their minds, for them), boys imitating the swagger and look, the hair, the jacket, in hope of engendering somewhat more local swooning in high schools across the country. This truncated arc, a star just beginning to ascend over 1950s America, was serious pop-culture business that reverberates to this day.
It’s reasonable to assume that a work addressing the James Dean phenomenon will also be serious, accretive to the mythology of that moment. In the case of The Cold Last Swim, to make that assumption would be a mistake, because here Junior Burke takes an entirely different tack. He imagines an alternate history, one in which James Dean is not killed in that crash because that crash never occurs. He knocks this iconic caricature of bad-boy-gone-too-soon off his pedestal to see what happens.
We should accept that invitation in the spirit in which Burke offers it. He wants us to enjoy imagining a life not cut short but a life prolonged, breezing past a close-call on a remote stretch of California highway.
Burke embeds his story in the Hollywood of the ’50s and early ’60s, in renowned diners, coffee shops, restaurants, and watering holes of that place and time, in period television shows and in California car culture. His cast of characters is truly a cast of characters — mobbed-up record producers, teenagers who become sitcom stars, teenagers who become obsessed with James Dean and leave home, hustlers and head-cases, writers and photographers for teen movie and music mags, politicians and payola investigators who are not quite FBI agents.
Right off the bat we find James Dean, between filming East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause, being cast in an episode of General Electric Theater (the actual episode aired 12 December 1954) in which, after an altercation during rehearsal, Ronald Reagan is, in an off-script moment in Burke’s tale, shot in the chest by James Dean on live TV.
And we’re off to the races. What follows is mayhem and coincidence, some characters assuming multiple false names and at times assuming others’ identities altogether.
In particular, one major character, nicknamed Specs, is a songwriter who produces a demo shopped to big-time record producers. We see multiple recording sessions in which Specs – and, later, another character calling himself Specs – creates a new approach to recording pop tunes in which a “wall of sound” is created; perhaps Specs is meant to remind us of a certain Phil Spector who actually invented the “wall of sound” in ’60s pop music. Here we see Burke, who is also a musician, making very good use of his knowledge of what it takes to produce this novel mode of recording.
The allure of this novel is not so much in the writing, as touched upon below, as in the plot, and so it is difficult to address the tale without giving too much away to those who wish to go along for James Dean’s ride. Let’s just say that in the novel as well as the film Rebel Without a Cause, there’s a pivotal scene called the “chickie run” — Dean and another actor are seen racing stolen cars toward an ocean cliff. Both cars take the plunge, one actor (Burke’s Dean rejects stuntmen) failing to bail out in time when his clothing is caught in the car’s door handle (as shown in the actual movie).
The world comes to believe that the driver killed in the fiery crash on the beach below is James Dean. Enough said.
Burke’s tale is cast in the style of noir, albeit sunny California noir. The writing fits that bill; it’s straightforward and plain, almost as bare-bones as if the novel were a screenplay. There are many quick cuts and the myriad characters are moved around like chess pieces. Their trajectories are complex and intersect repeatedly and at times coincidentally, and their scenes don’t always engender much in the way of consequence except to move the reader toward scenes that otherwise might not seem reasonable. There’s much fun and flashy busyness.
Burke’s narrative is a whirlwind escape into the speculative Land of What-If. In this regard, the timing of the release of The Last Cold Swim might well be perfect. We can be entertained in Burke’s alternate land of the stars and the star-struck just at a time when the real world brakes to a dead stop.