Openness to Place: John O’Kane’s “A Venice Quintet”

March 25, 2022

In this compact collection, John O’Kane brings his intimate knowledge of Venice, California to five stories that explore the lives of the seaside suburb’s residents. What strikes the reader about this collection is O’Kane’s close observations of people. His portraits include street people, artists, intellectuals, women young and old — the kind of quirky people that you could encounter in Venice.

The stories are told in a conversational manner in plain speech and artfully, but not artificially constructed. They are narrated in a matter-of-fact way and without jabbing our ribs with some obvious or facile moral lesson. The characters are revealed for who they are with all their vulnerabilities dangling.

His first story, “Hyperion to Erebus,” is a first person tale about the narrator’s voyage to Venice, starting from South Beach, another seaside community on the other side of the continent. O’Kane brings the story to life with attention to the weather, the sights, sounds, odors, and characters the narrator encounters on the famous Venice Boardwalk. Scene and incident follow one another without much regard to plot; rather, O’Kane is interested in creating a vivid mosaic of what life in Venice is like for a newbie. The characters he encounters are sketched with a selection of sharp, telling details and snippets of accurately-caught demotic speech.

The next story in the collection, “Dispossession,” is about a young woman named Segolene, a trust-fund scion. O’Kane gives his protagonist a richly detailed backstory with language that is both concrete and imagistic. The action of the story takes Segolene on a stroll through the streets of Venice and describes her fleeting encounters and eventual hookup with a group of interesting personalities who she invites back to her digs, where the story takes a surprising turn — a Venice La Dolce Vita with an unexpected dramatic ending.

“The Assignment” enters Jim Thompson territory with the skyline provided by Graham Greene. Sonny is an independent contractor, ex-military, drug-addled, on the down-low, confused about the nature of his assignment and unsure of his role in the scheme of things. O’Kane beautifully delineates Sonny’s murky subjectivity and deftly fills in his backstory while transforming Venice into a noir cityscape.

Next is “From the Ruins of Llano del Rio,” the title a reference to the intentional community started by started by Los Angeles socialist attorney Job Harriman. In this story O’Kane evokes Aldous Huxley’s utopian novel Island, replete with a new psychedelic and hypnotherapy as a unifier of mind and body, the community having been re-started by a group of eager Venice exiles. Using the occasion of the one year anniversary of the new community, O’Kane limns the contours of the colony and, through the eyes of his protagonist Todd, shows the hopes and aspirations of the other world that’s possible as the Wall Street Occupiers had it. And yet, as Jack Kerouac put it, “Give man his utopia and he will destroy it with a smile.”

The last story in the collection is “Altz House,” a poignant but gritty tale of people suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and other social discards, passing their days in an assisted living facility.

A Venice Quintet is a solid collection of diverse and interesting stories. There are no neatly tied up or cute endings in O’Kane’s stories, just the direct presentation of ambitions unrealized, the futility of messed up lives with the occasional kiss of hope. O’Kane’s characters learn to deal with their lives in different ways, some that are beneficial and others destructive. John O’Kane is a tireless and highly committed writer whose tenacity in pursuing the word shows his enthusiasm and openness to place and the characters situated there, in this instance the legendary Venice, California.

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Richard Modiano became active in the literary community connected to the Poetry Project in New York City where he came to know Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, William S. Burroughs and Ted Berrigan. From 2010 to 2019, he served as Executive Director of the Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center in Venice, California. In that time he produced and curated hundreds of literary events. In 2019 he was elected Vice President of the California State Poetry Society. The Huffington Post named him as one of 200 people doing the most to promote American poetry. His collection The Forbidden Lunch Box will be published by Punk Hostage Press in the summer of 2022.