• Email
  • Print

Below Suspicion

True Confessions

by John Gregory Dunne
E.P. Dutton, 341 pp., $9.95

Transatlantic Blues

by Wilfrid Sheed
E.P. Dutton, 312 pp., $9.95

Although Roman Catholicism is a looming presence—one might almost say a major character—in both novels under review, it would be folly to attempt a serious linking of them on that (or, indeed, any other) basis. True Confessions is a scandalous romp of a book in which the Irish-American clergy and laity alike are (with token exceptions) lightheartedly depicted as blathering fools, worldly cynics, and sanctimonious or hardened knaves. They inhabit a busy world in which the only true god is the Deal and the most deadly sin is the failure of one conniving scamp to acquire the crucial information that might give him the advantage over another. In Transatlantic Blues, on the other hand, Catholicism exists primarily in the form of a bad conscience that bedevils the protagonist throughout, tempting him to discharge a voluminous load of guilt into the ear of the only confessor that will hear him—a Sony tape recorder. As entertainment, the extroverted rascality of the one wins easily over the ranting pseudo introspection of the other.

True Confessions is a good cops-and-priests story—sordid, raunchy, and often funny—set in Los Angeles in the late 1940s. Though it derives its narrative impulse from the discovery of the bisected corpse of Lois Fazenda, a young semi-prostitute whom the press nicknames, with only partial accuracy, the Virgin Tramp, the book is not a suspense novel or murder mystery in the ordinary sense. Rather, it is concerned with tracing—interestingly and deftly—the “ripple effect” which the case has upon the racketeers, contractors, blarneying lawyers, glad-handing undertakers, whores, and the variously tainted members of the police force and clergy who populate this crowded work.

At the center are two brothers: Lieutenant Tommy Spellacy, who was once “bagman” in payoffs to members of the vice squad, and Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (“Des”), the golf-playing chancellor of the archdiocese, an accomplished fixer, and a close associate of the aging Cardinal Hugh Danaher, who, without illusion, relies upon Des as his “lightning rod, hatchetman, and accountant” in the management of his unwieldy domain. Tommy stands a chance of beating out the stupid Captain Fuqua to become chief of police; Des, with the Cardinal’s support, seems headed for a bishopric. Neither goal is achieved—thanks to the lines rippling and fanning outward from poor Lois. The lines keep crossing, and it is to the credit of Dunne’s plotting that the novel becomes neither a hopeless tangle nor an indigestible mess of coincidences. Both the pacing and the footwork of the novel are exhilarating.

True Confessions is written in a comical-tough vein that exploits the full resources of ethnic abuse and sexual slang that Lenny Bruce made shamelessly available to public entertainers. It abounds in references to harps, micks, coons, dinges, sheenies, Polacks, ginneys (an eccentric spelling?) and the like; to boffing, dipping, blowing, and sniffing; to leses, dykes, fags, and cunts. Dunne is thoroughly at ease with this exuberantly offensive mode, handling it as if to the manner born. The following passage—lifted from the interior monologue of Tommy Spellacy—provides a fair sampling of the book’s language and preoccupations:

There were no loose ends, everything seemed to be connected, and that was what bothered him. Usually you locked your desk and you went home and you worried about the termites in the ceiling or…whether your medical insurance covered the piles. The hemorrhoids growing like acorns in your ass had nothing to do with a cute little number who had a rose tattooed above her bush and who just happened to be cut in two. Not this time. Everything was mixed in together. You talked about Turd Turner, then you had to talk about Corinne…. Knock on Brenda’s door and there was Mickey Gagnon, watch Fuqua take a leak and there was Dan Campion shaking Fuqua’s dick.

In keeping with the style is the police-blotter view of human nature that dominates the moral tone of the novel. Vice and folly are universal. Everybody has—or is trying to get—something on everybody else. Occasionally Dunne allows a character to draw back from the noisome spectacle, as when the old Cardinal, who possesses a certain wintry integrity, characterizes both Spellacy brothers as having “the ability to make other men feel small, even cheap…. Their instinct for what was inferior was unerring.” But such an overview is rare; for the most part, the characters are all in there slugging, with papal knights, Knights of Malta, and Knights of Columbus in the thick of it and no one to blow the whistle.

Dunne’s handling of his Irish-Catholic material reads like a gleeful parody of a world make literarily familiar by James T. Farrell, Edwin O’Connor, and Tom McHale. Here is Tommy on the subject of his mother:

She should have been a nun, my mother. She set great store by living saints.

Tell me about Maureen Delaney, Father. Does she still come to the Sodality Meetings?”

Never misses, Mrs. Spellacy.”

It’s grand, as crippled as she is, with them wasted little limbs. Grand.”

You give her the Blessed Sacrament and you see her shining little face all scrubbed nice and clean to receive the sacred body and blood and she makes you feel you’re doing her the grandest favor in the world.”

A living saint, Father,” my mother said. I think now she was wondering if living with the old man qualified her for living sainthood….

And tell me about Tyrone O’Keefe.”

He’s still all covered with the bug powder, Mrs. Spellacy.”

Another living saint, Tyrone O’Keefe. Because of the tremendous growth of sanctifying grace in his soul.

And here is an exchange between Tommy and his (literally) insane wife:

And their boy?” Mary Margaret said. “Has he made his first Holy Communion yet?”

Fourteen years ago.”

That’s grand, Tom,” Mary Margaret said. “Napoleon always said that the day of his First Holy Communion was the grandest day of his whole life. With all his honors. Did you know that?”

As though doing penance for his prevailing mockery, Dunne rather sentimentally concludes his novel with a whiff of incense: while Tommy and the others remain unregenerate, the hard-nosed Mgsr. Desmond Spellacy, exiled to a remote desert parish, is allowed at last to discover what it means to be a good priest.

Though Dunne has been compared to Chandler and Hammett, True Confessions is not really on a par with their best work. The characterization, for one thing, is too glib and repetitious. While Dunne has a good ear for the rhythms and vocabulary of tough-talk and for the probably outdated clichés of Irish-American speech, he uses his gift indiscriminately, so that a Sonny McDonough sounds exactly like a Dan T. Campion—every other word is “grand.” Similarly, the thoughts of his characters can nearly always be reduced to a suspicious “What does this guy really know—what’s he getting at?” And the rivalrous love-hate relationship between the Spellacy brothers, which should be the emotional center of the novel, is handled superficially and remains undeveloped. Above all, Dunne lacks the descriptive and image-making powers of Raymond Chandler, who created a Los Angeles that ranks with the great mythic cities of the world; despite the street names, Dunne’s LA might just as well be the Borough of Queens. But such a comparison is not really in order unless exorbitant claims are made. True Confessions does very well on its own terms.

Confessions in Bad Faith” might do as a subtitle for Wilfrid Sheed’s latest novel. Its ever-present main character is one Monty (real name: Pendrid) Chatworth, a television personality of the David Frost variety who shuttles back and forth between New York and London to conduct classy, semi-official interview programs for NBC and the BBC. During flights, he boozily tapes the story of his life, beginning with the departure of his family from England to America early in World War II and concluding with his guilt-ridden eminence as the widely acclaimed intellect and conscience of television, the winner of numerous Emmy Awards. As the descendant of an ancient recusant family of English Catholics, he also shuttles spiritually between his English and American identities and between his former and his present condition as a Catholic. The latter is scandalous, for toward the end of the novel we learn that the once pious Pendrid is now living with a nun whom he has impregnated.

Long sections of the novel tell of his experiences at a Catholic boarding school, where, surrounded by Irish-American boys, he undergoes an intensive Americanization, and at Oxford, where for three years he stubbornly resists repatriation as an Englishman. Each of these sections is introduced, interrupted, and subjected to extensive commentary by the corrupted Monty. Other parts of the confession deal with Pendrid’s not very satisfactory sex life and with his English relations—a dim and fatuous lot. After rejecting his Uncle George’s offer to let him manage (and ultimately inherit) the decayed Chatworth Manor estate, he comes to America and discovers the public “voice” that leads to his transformation into the famed Monty Chatworth.

I found it impossible to identify the book’s real subject or to guess the impulse that led to its writing. Much of the Oxford material reads like a retread of Sheed’s first novel, A Middle-Class Education (1960). And the differences in English and American attitudes and style that so agitate the adolescent (and collegiate) Pendrid have been more poignantly dramatized in The Blacking Factory (1968). It is not helpful to think of the novel as a kind of Bildungs-roman, since the central character undergoes no real development; he merely tries on a series of less than adequate identities. Is it then the story of a sell-out, an anatomy of guilt? The portrait of a once zealous (if slightly phony) Catholic in a post-Vatican II world? A satire on the mindlessness of television, the meretriciousness of fame? It is all of these things but only sporadically and half-heartedly. Somewhere within Transatlantic Blues there is, I believe, a real and potentially moving story of fathers and sons. Pendrid’s gentle, honorable, rather unworldly father is one of the few appealing characters, and his injunction—“Be first-rate”—continues to haunt his son throughout the novel. But this strand is never sufficiently disentangled or drawn out. The book seems to be caught in a rip-tide of cross purposes, and much of it, I am afraid, is tedious.

A large part of the problem lies with the way in which Monty-Pendrid is allowed to present himself. Sheed’s male characters (and in a sense there are no others) have always been prone to extreme self-consciousness. Their lengthy interior monologues tend to alternate between self-analysis and self-accusation, with very little scope for the spontaneous or serendipitous. The unremitting commentary frequently stops the action in its tracks. Consequently, the novels read more like demonstrations than imaginative works of fiction—demonstrations, often brilliantly conducted, of what it is like to be a certain kind of critic (Max Jamison) or to experience polio and its consequences during adolescence (the first half of People Will Always Be Kind) or to spend a wretched year at an English public school (The Blacking Factory). His novels seem stronger in documentation than in invention and regularly give the appearance of autobiography only slightly transmuted—even when the characters and their circumstances are obviously “made up.” They have trouble progressing beyond their initial premise or situation into a freely moving story, with the result that their denouements are often unconvincing (Max Jamison’s reconciliation with his wife) or melodramatic (Jimmy’s breakdown at the end of The Blacking Factory).

These characteristics of Sheed’s fiction become especially obvious in Transatlantic Blues. Monty’s confessional style is heavily facetious, falsely intimate, cute, and shrill. And the voice never lets up, even when it is sometimes attributed to one of the two alter egos, Plunkett and Snead, whom Monty invents to represent, respectively, the pious and profane sides of his personality. But since the piety is false, Plunkett gets very few lines and the squinty-eyed Snead (“the meanest sound in the language”) does a fair amount of the talking. The dreadfully “with it” quality of Monty’s style is well illustrated by what he says to “Father” Sony on the subject of being included in the Queen’s Honours List for an MBE:

And a good morning to you. I wasn’t that drunk, I think; I was just trying to shake something loose: what it was escapes me. Anyway, it seems Mr. Snead is back in town. The MBE has attracted his squinty attention. He can’t wait to stand in line with all those jockeys. I only hope he doesn’t do one of his mad dances and sprinkle the Queen with holy water…. An award from the Queen? Hot shit. Does that mean you get to lay her? Oh, just some letters after your name. I get it. That’s real cute. So what with my father sneering at my American praises, there is really no award I can comfortably enjoy—although the Nobel Prize might be OK.

Can I send a messenger? “One MBE, just sign here, mum.” No, NBC wants me there in quivering person. They want to ask me afterwards what it felt like. Jesus. I hope they don’t get Snead by mistake.

Obviously Sheed intends Monty to be the way he is—to be that kind of character (“But then Chatworth can be desolately cute, can’t he?”). Unfortunately, one comes to feel that Sheed’s contempt for Monty-Pendrid is as great as his protagonist’s self-contempt. And it is hard, I suspect, to base a successful novel upon unflagging dislike of the central character. Trapped by this maudlin bore, the reader is bound, sooner or later, to ask, “What’s the point?”

It seems unfair that a writer of Sheed’s industry, intelligence, and experience has not yet been able to produce a novel that sustains the promise of its conception. One keeps hoping that the next one will finally clear the ground. But Transatlantic Blues is not the redeeming book. It unaccountably lacks the wit, the cleverness of phrasing, the eye for aesthetic and moral dilemmas that in the preceding novels have offered the reader a generous compensation for their inadequacies as works of fiction.

  • Email
  • Print