By Junior Burke

Gibson House Press


286pp/$16.99/May 2020

The Cold Last Swim
Cover by Karen Sheets de Garcia

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

There is an enduring mystique surrounding the actor James Dean due to his death at the age of twenty-four after starring in only two movies (with a third released posthumously). Jack Dann explored what Dean would have done if he had survived the car crash in Salinas on September 30, 1955 in his novel The Rebel, but Junior Burke offers an alternative version of a world in which Dean survives in The Cold Last Swim. Interestingly Ronald Reagan plays a major role in both novels.

Burke's novel, both in narrative and inception, begins with Dean and Reagan co-starring in an episode of General Electric Theater on December 12, 1954. Reagan was the host of the show, and often appeared in the short dramas he presented. Dean had appeared on the show once before, about a month earlier. For this episode, called "The Dark, Dark Hours," Dean's character pulls a gun on Reagan's character. In Burke's novel, in the interest of being as real as possible, Dean uses a real gun, and shoots Reagan, possibly accidently, possible intentionally. Facing a trial for attempted murder, Dean's career appears to go into a tailspin.

Despite much of Hollywood turning its back on Dean in the wake of the shooting, he does still hold an allure for many and he has his supporters, including the director Nick Ray, who still wants to make Rebel without a Cause with Dean, "Specs" Pelham, an up-and-coming music producer and composer, and Jill Parnell, the young groupie who can't see past Dean's bad-boy image. As the novel progresses, Burke focuses on Dean's attempts to get his life back on track. What Dean discovers, however, is that his past is always chasing him and the decisions he made during one short period of his life will continue to haunt him no matter how far he tries to run. At the same time, Dean's decisions prove destructive for many of those who come into his circle.

Burke's version of Dean left behind the same two films, East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause that had been released at the time of the historical Dean's death, although our world's posthumous Giant doesn't exist in this timeline. Dean's reputation as an actor was built on those two films, but the shooting of Reagan, which Burke uses to launch the actor on a political career, tempers Dean's reputation. With that shooting hanging over his head, Dean tries to find a new place for himself in the world, building on his past relationships even while cutting himself off from them.

The Cole Last Swim is less a rumination on fame, although that does exist in the novel, but more a look at how individuals are shaped not only by their own choices, but by the choices made by those around them. At the same time, there is no denying that some people have a larger influence on others. Dean's influence on Jill, Specs, and others who he has come into contact with is undeniable, partly caused by his fame, but also by his powers of persuasion and force of personality. In turn, Dean is influenced by others, whether it is the journalist Garland Alpert, who took an instant dislike to Dean and viewed him as a phony, or Pelham, who Dean thought he could use, but whose own decisions would come back to haunt Dean.

One of the interesting features of The Cold Last Swim is that for all Burke examines Dean's life and discusses Dean's influence on people, it is all taken as a given. Burke does not try to explain the immense place Dean has in our culture, not only for people who were alive when his films came out or have become fans of his films, but for the countless others for whom James Dean represents an ideal or a concept, even if they've never seen East of Eden, Rebel without a Cause, or Giant.

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