"I thought I could find him before the police did," Gary Indiana says with a laugh from his upstate New York home, referring to his initial attraction to the media spectacle that was the Andrew Cunanan manhunt. With the killing of Gianni Versace, however, a murder spree that already had disturbing cultural connotations slipped into the netherworld reserved for full-blown scandals (JonBenet Ramsey, O.J. Simpson) and the inspiration for Indiana's latest book, Three Month Fever, was born. In this work all of Indiana's many career hats converge: the political commentary of his Village Voice writing; the pointed criticism of his ArtForum columns; and the elegiac lyricism of his novels, Gone Tomorrow and Horse Crazy.
How best to examine the death of a man whose funeral resembled nothing short of a rock concert, complete with a VIP area, expectant groupies, screaming fans, and mourners, all jockeying for position between velvet ropes and photographers? Indiana compares the aftermath of the Versace killing to the glitterati's response to the handiwork of another media-created rock and roll star, Charles Manson. He writes: "It became chic to claim a deep personal friendship with Versace, to infer that one might, but for a trick of fate, have been with Versace at the very moment of his 'assassination,' as it had once been chic to reveal one's invitation to Cielo Drive on the evening of the Tate slayings, an invitation only declined because of 'car trouble' or a 'previous engagement.'" If only Cunanan had had the foresight to form a band and cut a demo, one could decipher his lyrics for clues the way thousands have done with Manson's home-recorded warblings.
Rather than attempt a straightforward, dry recounting of the case (as Maureen Orth did recently in Vulgar Favors), Indiana puts himself inside the mind of Cunanan, less concerned with what happened than why. By adopting this perspective what emerges is not the maniacal demon of earlier accounts, but a flesh-and-blood human being, more tragic and pitiful than anything else. While Orth summons a particular blend of moral outrage over the killings, insinuating blame onto their gay milieu, Indiana points his finger elsewhere.
He writes: "Unless you were personally involved in it, the scariest aspect of the Andrew Cunanan story was the insensible proliferation of media coverage of it following the shooting of Gianni Versace: The killer, widely ignored while he left a trail of bodies from Minnesota to New Jersey, became abruptly, a diabolic icon in the circus of American celebrity.... Cunanan's life was transformed from the somewhat poignant and depressing but fairly ordinary thing it was into a narrative overripe with tabloid evil: ugly sex, drug dealing, prostitution."
Indeed the more profound villain in this tale was Versace -- or at least the social demimonde who clucked in approval at his giddy declaration that "I can spend three million dollars in two hours. I go shopping one day in Paris buying things for my house in Miami. That night, I come back home, and I see the figure I spent -- oh, I start to dance.... I want to kiss myself!"
The most jarring aspects of this sordid affair then, are not the banal details of Versace's death, but society's reductive equation of celebrity and being, thus making the wish to become famous nothing less than the sheer desire to exist. In Daniel Harris's "The Electronic Funeral," an essay analyzing Internet postings mourning the Versace killing, we learn that "Versace's merchandise is almost invariably referred to as a 'legacy' handed down to us by a selfless humanitarian who 'gave a lot to his community' and who did not 'endow' the world with the 'visional greatness' of his 'oeuvre' out of sordid profit motives but for the pure, high-minded 'passion of designing'.... Buying clothes is recharacterized in the Versace tributes as an act of 'collecting' art works."
The literal proof of this Orwellian linguistic shift is currently on display at Miami's own Museum of Contemporary Art, which gleefully embraces this blurring of art and unabashed commerce by housing an entire exhibition of Versace's clothing.
Indiana movingly restores a grounded perspective to the cult of celebrity in such a way that Three Month Fever's closing paragraphs evoke a genuine sense of tenderness for Cunanan. As this forlorn figure huddles alone on an Indian Creek Drive houseboat, moments from suicide, we're left with an overpowering desire to somehow prevent the inevitable. Listening to CNN feverishly speculate on his next move, "Andrew heard Madonna, he heard Sly Stallone, these might have been good suggestions, he thought, if he'd had more than the one drop of energy he needed left, but why take out the Material Girl and Rambo when you can kill Public Enemy Number One?"
One almost wants to reach out to Cunanan, to care for him, to take him in like a lost dog and make him right. Except that he did kill five people. "That's the dealbreaker," Indiana deadpans.
Gary Indiana reads from Three Month Fever Tuesday, April 27, at 8:00 p.m. at Books & Books, 296 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables. Call 305-442-4408 for details.
-- Brett Sokol
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