By Alexander Wallace
The author was provided an Advanced Review Copy of this novel.
Sometimes, the people in the media we fawn over are taken from us far too young. We will look back on their short careers as being filled with so much potential, despairing at the great work that we will never get to see; as such, it’s a small cottage industry in the alternate history genre. In his novel Jimmy Dean’s Last Dance, A. K. Alliss does this for one of the great heartthrobs of the 1950s: James Dean.
In this world, James Dean never dies in the car crash outside Cholame, California that felled him in 1955 at the age of twenty-four. In this world, he continues his career in Hollywood into the 1960s, coming to be quite familiar with another celebrity who also died too young: Marilyn Monroe.
The plot begins with Monroe and Dean enjoying quiet time one evening in 1962. He leaves. That night, Monroe is found dead in her home in Brentwood, Los Angeles. Almost immediately, Dean is suspected of having had a hand in her death.
The novel then becomes a deftly-plotted conspiracy noir thriller. All sorts of unsavory elements get involved, from the scummier parts of Hollywood to organized crime to multiple agencies of the United States government. Much of this, I suspect, is invented, but it is thrilling all the same. Alliss takes an approach with Dean, Monroe, and other historical figures in a way that strongly reminds me of the argument Gary Oswald made in his essay Why Write Alternative History? about how this genre allows you to write about familiar characters while maintaining an element of the unknown.
The tour of early 1960s Hollywood continues when Dean calls in a favor from an old friend of his with whom he had been involved with in some rather shady business: a musician by the name of Elvis Aaron Presley. The shady business the two had stumbled into is entirely fictional; in doing so, Alliss departs from historical reality in a way that would probably be considered too much by the writers for this august publishing house, but it’s worth it. Dean and Presley are a fantastic leading duo, confronting agents of many different groups, all viewing this unlikely duo as an obstacle.
Both members of that duo feel like real people, even if they are icons today. Dean is a character who is distraught at the shocking death of a friend, more than a little overwhelmed by circumstances. Who wouldn’t, when you’re contending with the US government and organized crime? Presley is also well-sketched, as someone who doesn’t even have a personal connection to the case but is intent on doing what needs to be done anyway.
This already exciting plot is furthered along substantially by the brisk writing. Alliss made the crucial decision to write this novel in the present tense, rather than the more conventional past-tense. It is a decision that makes the plot move along like lightning, imbuing already good prose with an urgency that makes you keep turning the page.
My only issue with the book is its lack of female characters. You have Marilyn Monroe, who is found dead relatively early on in the book. Otherwise, the only women who show up are either background characters or show up late in the book.
Overall, I had a lot of fun with Jimmy Dean’s Last Dance. It is a thoroughly unconventional alternate history novel, and one of the very few published examples of pop culture alternate history. It is a surprising treat, and a novel that many writers in the genre could learn from.