by Jack Dann
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Two of the great icons of the 1950s were James Dean, who appeared in eight films before his untimely death on September 30, 1955, and Marilyn Monroe, who appeared in thirty films before she died just seven years later. Beginning his novel on September 29, 1955, Jack Dann conflates the stories of Dean and Monroe in The Rebel.
In Dann's world, Dean did not die in his car accident with Donald Turnipseed in Cholame, California. Instead, Dean suffered injuries in that accident while his friend, Rolf Wütherich, was killed, instead of injured as happened in our world (Wütherich was killed in an accident in 1981). Dann explores the direction Dean's life and career might have taken if he had survived the accident.
There is a mystique about James Dean, and for those who buy into that mystique, Dann's book will speak the loudest. For those who don't understand what set Dean apart from other actors of the era, including Marlon Brando, Paul Newman or Tony Curtis, The Rebel will not provide the answer, nor will the book be particularly intriguing, for it does base itself on the belief that the James Dean mystique was something palpable.
The majority of the first part of the book appears to be Dean and Monroe having sex in a variety of places even as Monroe laments her difficult relationships with husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller and expresses jealousy in Dean’s own failed relationship with Pier Angeli. The trysts between Monroe and Dean become tedious and repetitive as the two stars engage in their Angst-ridden affairs, even as they proclaim their love for each other and others.
While James Dean would appear to be a touchstone for a generation, Dann’s Dean is shown in a variety of touchstone positions, like a more famous Forrest Gump. Rather than showing James Dean actually making any films, Dann shows him wheeling and dealing behind the scenes with the big names…Elvis Presley, Bobby Kennedy, Jack Kerouac, the various loves of Monroe’s life, and so on. Rather than become a character who elicits the interest and sympathy of the reader, the James Dean presented in The Rebel is a means of showing the reader major people and events of the period.
Eventually, Monroe and Angeli do drive Dean to take a stand as he runs for governor of California, but it is a run based on vengeance rather than any positive message. The gubernatorial race between Dean and other erstwhile, but faded, star Ronald Reagan, is one of the major historical differences in the book, as opposed to the differences which are more personal or deal with the entertainment field.
The title of the book, The Rebel, is an indication that Dean, as his life and career progresses, will not exactly be a member of the establishment, even as he gets involved in presidential and state politics. By ending his novel in 1968, at the height of the hippy movement, Dann provides an indication of how Dean changed the memories of the 1960s, but he fails to follow through on the promise by showing how the reimagined 60s altered the 1970s and the end of the Viet Nam War.
Readers who already have an iconic view of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean (as well as many of the other characters in The Rebel) will probably enjoy the book more than those who do not already share that view. Dann's novel may speak more to the generation that came of age during the period covered by the book rather than the generations which either preceded it or succeeded it.
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