The Awful Truth

John Gregory Dunne died of a heart attack on December 30, 2003, a very bad year, not least because it brought so many lies to those who care about truth. Politicians, priests, generals, CEOs, journalists, and mere entertainers kept telling whoppers about what they had been doing. Dunne’s first novel was called True Confessions (1977), and as a novelist and essayist he tried to tell the truth, sometimes too vigorously for truth’s own good. He cared enough about truth to send the very worst, that is, and his accounts of the national life often made it seem almost paralyzingly ugly, or almost disablingly absurd, or both at once. But with truth, too much is better than not enough.

After his death, his brother Dominick Dunne wrote of him in Vanity Fair: “He knew his turf. He understood about getting at the essence of things.” How those two sentences fit together may not be immediately clear. But first of all John Gregory Dunne’s turf was on the two coasts. He was born in Hartford, Connecticut, to a well-to-do Irish Catholic family, graduated from Princeton in 1954, served as a draftee in the peacetime army, and worked for Time in New York. In 1964 he moved to Los Angeles, where he stayed on to write about, among other subjects, crime, sports, politics, migrant workers, and movieland for Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines; he worked on novels (it took him thirteen years to get one published) and began a long collaboration with his wife, Joan Didion, in writing screenplays.

This background shaped his outlook as a writer. From Catholicism he learned to recognize as well as distrust authority. He got to know the Church from the inside, from the clerics his family knew and entertained socially; he was named for the archbishop of St. Paul, who had married his parents. The Dunnes were prominent in the larger society as well—“the big-deal Irish Catholic family in a Wasp city,” Dominick calls them, and his brother’s sense of American life was far from parochial. He was in no way intimidated by high-powered people in California and the movies. He wrote a fine book about Twentieth Century Fox, The Studio (1969), and wonderfully acute and funny magazine pieces about Hollywood in all its seamy pretentiousness, and he used his local knowledge freely in novels like The Red White and Blue (1987) and now Nothing Lost. And of course from tinsel town itself it was a short step to the show biz of contemporary politics.

As a writer Dunne took evident satisfaction in being the insider, the one who knows how things work and where the bodies are buried. The Irish, the Church, movieland, the mid-ranges of American politics which became the upper range as the Kennedys arrived—all this was meat for him, as journalist and fiction writer. There were of course Irish criminals and Irish cops (often enough the same person), Irish lawyers and Irish judges, to …

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