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Vanishing Rooms.

Vanishing Rooms by Melvin Dixon Cleis Press, May 2001, $14.95 ISBN 1-573-44123-6

The third novel of a prolific young black literary fiction author, poet and scholar sadly lost to AIDS in 1992, Vanishing Rooms has been rescued from out-of-print limbo by a San Francisco-based small press only a decade after the book was originally published. Its story centers on vortex of complicated relationships among young artists and other denizens of bohemian New York City in the early 1970s, including an intense, though ambivalent connection beween two black aspiring performers--Jesse Durand and his dance-class colleague, Ruella McPhee, to whom he turns for emotional support when he loses his longtime white male lover to a violent death at the hands of white, gay-bashing street toughs.

The title Vanishing Rooms echoes a gritty, elegiac verse from the distinguished African American poet Robert Hayden that Dixon uses as an opening epigram. Dixon's fictional narrative is also gritty and elegiac, as well as highly accessible and gripping. It is presented in the voices of three major characters in alternating, short chapters: first, Jesse, then Ruella, and finally--and very compassionately--Lonny, the confused 15--year-old Italian working-class high-school dropout, part of the aimless posse that murders Jesse's lover. We meet Jon-Michael Barthe--or Metro, as Jesse calls his first love, a white Louisiana-born journalist with literary aspirations--only through Jesse's anguished recollections and the tortured vision of Lonny.

Metro and Jesse graduated from the same elite New England campus, meeting in the aftermath of a Black Student Union occupation in which Jesse participated and Metro was trying to cover for the school newspaper. From their initial mistrustful encounter, the young men proceed to becoming wary friends, then undercover lovers. Metro's commitment to Jesse still seems a little tentative when they decide to live together in the Village after college, and these unresolved tensions begin to trouble their relationship just as Metro is killed. Jesse creates a kind of retreat and haven for himself with Ruella, a gifted dance collaborator and performance partner, who actually never met his dead lover. Jesse, seems to express his affection through nicknames, insists on calling her "Rooms," a name she vaguely dislikes. Emotionally self-protective but still drawn to Jesse because of her fatherless childhood and the loss of beloved older brother to the street and prison, Ruella is a witness for Jesse, and he for her, during a critical life passage.

The multicultural urban bohemian flavor of this novel--featuring young people all in the early and sometimes chaotic phases of finding their way artistically and vocationally, while also exploring and understanding his or her own personal and sexual identity--suggests to me, as I read it today, a quiet, well-crafted, more personal literary forerunner of the Broadway musical Rent (itself based on the opera La Boheme). And I wouldn't be surprised to see it made one day into a compelling small film for HBO or Showtime. All the better for this author's fine work to find it's way to even larger audiences.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:McHenry, Susan
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2001
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