Dead in Long Beach, California by Venita Blackburn

I’ve just finished being suitably stunned by this novel. I know in the media world, hyperbole is our oxygen, and I might just someday startle the publishing world that gives me e-galleys upon request by not liking a book. But that pleasure will have to be deferred in this case…because I loved the book…as if it were the first time.

You know how in gaming, puzzle-solving or in life that you just about figure everything out…just seconds before it’s all over…and it’s too late to figure everything out. I felt that about Dead in Long Beach, California: as the “progress” counter on my reader reached 99%, in a flash I got it all as the meter reached the decisive 100%. That’s perfection in a novel, or as near the reading experience can get to it. If you wanted more than that, I’d get it from Bach or Mozart…but pick your own poison.

Coral grew up as a closeted lesbian, but if you ask me, she’s none too secure as an adult either. She’s now older than her niece’s mother, Naima, was at her death. At the end of the novel, Coral is visited by four ghosts while at a drive-through takeout window, and by then, you’re not surprised but rather feel fulfilled by this most classic of all classical tropes. “Venita Blackburn sure knows her stuff.” I think that sentence would make an excellent blurb. This is a impactful contemporary tale whose intensity will slap you hard in the face if you fail to pay attention.

Coral visits the blue-hued apartment of her younger brother, Jay, and finds he has ended his life, his body lying in bed as if asleep…only permanently. We are in Long Beach, L.A. environs territory, under the dark sun of what comes off as the opening of a David Lynch movie.

What happens next spins us out of rational control in a vivid, updated noir manner. Coral takes custody of her brother’s phone and responds to his messages as if she were Jay. She taxes her brain trying to figure out how her brother would respond, at one point becoming physically ill by the self-imposed pressure. Coral keeps her dead brother “alive” because on the internet, he is. Ask yourself why. It’s the key to unlocking the book. Answer not obvious, you’ll have to dig for it. Isn’t that like…the hyperion…the best? Dead in Long Beach, California is elite fiction…if the word “elite” truly meant what it’s supposed to mean.

Like a recently read novel, Trust by Hernan Diaz, the high stylistics of Blackburn’s novel are a central semantic point. Contained within the novel are dystopian excerpts from Coral’s graphic novels…with the irony that the third person narration of society’s ills, which fill a substantial portion of the text, are more dystopian than the fiction-within-fiction dystopias. “As beautifully written as a jet-black bloodstone.” (My second choice for a book blurb.) Coral is a modestly successful writer of graphic novels. Her appearance at Comic Con to encounter her moderate fan base is a highlight of the book, as is an inserted fan fic response to Coral’s “fiction” which is so off-the-wall as to take off the whole wall.

My apologies if my review seems somewhat flippant. I loved Found Dead in Long Beach, California so much, and was so impressed with a writer who is new to me, and so gratified that a writer of a particular time and place could be so universally relevant and so moved (for me at my age) that “early childhood” flashbacks are set in the 90’s, that I can offer nothing but errant praise. Pubbing January 23rd, 2024.