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 work with. His brother wrote that John “knew his way around the Santa Monica courthouse,” and some of his best reporting had to do with crime and the law. In time these interests began to cluster together in the form of fiction, as in True Confessions, whose title is a pun on the private secrets told to priests and those told to policemen. The book’s main characters are a priest and a police officer in Los Angeles who are brothers, high in rank, Irish, and none too honest.
Dunne in recent years wanted to write about Americans who were not Irish Catholics or film people or “coastal.” His last book, Nothing Lost, is a work of fiction that owes much to “The Humboldt Murders,” a report from the Middle West which he wrote for The New Yorker in 1997. In the novel Edgar Parlance, an amiable-seeming but physically imposing black odd-jobs man in a state Dunne calls “South Midland,” is found murdered in a field, his tongue pulled out with pliers, his knee and face crushed, shot in the head and skinned alive, with the letter P enigmatically carved into his chest. The murders in rural Nebraska described in the New Yorker article also involved a black man, though his body was not mutilated (he already had a prosthetic leg), and two local white women were found shot dead with him; one of these, Brandon Teena, was a talented male impersonator, but in Nothing Lost, Dunne lets that opportunity pass. He took the flaying of Parlance from another real-life murder in the same part of Nebraska, where a doomsday cult leader tortured two disobedient followers to death and partially skinned one of them.
The novel’s murderers also recall the real ones in the article. Parlance is killed by two young ex-cons from the area, Bryant Gover and Duane Lajoie, trailer-park semi-morons who threw their weapons into a frozen river and were quickly apprehended at a roadblock. No motive is immediately evident, but Gover agrees to testify against Lajoie to win himself a life sentence. The real-life killers were called John Lotter and Marvin Nissen; their motive was a psychopathic dream of simple revenge; Nissen testified against Lotter at a trial which, though largely ignored by respectable locals, became a national circus for the likes of Maury Povich, Montel Williams, and Inside Edition, as well as The New Yorker and John Gregory Dunne.
Nothing Lost also describes an influx of notables from outside. The trial is in Regent, S.M., “A PLACE FIT FOR KINGS—POP. 3,679” according to the signs on the highway; we hear very little about the local residents, but the population seems to increase in size and grandeur as the event gets underway. Assuming that it was a racial hate crime, the President himself attends the victim’s funeral, along with Jesse Jackson and Johnnie Cochran, and there’s serious talk of a major motion picture based on the Edgar Parlance story, perhaps with Morgan Freeman in the title role.
Lots of lawyers come to town, naturally: Max Cline, cynical, Jewish, and homosexual, formerly of the state attorney general’s office and at times the book’s narrator, undertakes Lajoie’s hopeless defense. He’s up against the attorney general himself, Gerry Wormwold (“the Worm” to his numerous enemies), whose wife changed her name legally to “Nancy Reagan Anderson”; as well as J.J. McClure of the AG’s office, who is assigned to prosecute Gover and Lajoie; and Allie Vasquez and Patsy Feiffer, attractive and ambitious underlings of McClure. Other visiting S.M. luminaries include Congresswoman Sonora (“Poppy”) McClure, J.J.’s right-wing wife, by rumor a lesbian and a potential rival of the Worm’s for the Republican nomination for governor; Cowboy Collins, a former porn-movie star who’s a major contributor to Poppy’s campaign chest; and Jocko Cannon, son of the state Republican Party’s finance chairman and, though white, S.M. University’s all-American nose tackle. His hopes of being drafted high by the pros ride on his performance in the upcoming Orange Bowl game, though he may not get to play because he’s under indictment for the brutal beating of a coed.
Dunne had trouble resisting a weird character or a scabrous story, and figures like these serve mostly to fill in the background. But the book has too many people and stories in it for a reader to keep straight. When new characters enter, especially ones from farther away, they come trailing clouds of personal history and a new collection of names to be coped with. There is, for example, another lawyer, Teresa Kean, who agrees to work with Max Cline in defending Lajoie; we know she’ll be a problem for readers when Cline himself admits he should have mentioned her earlier. Her history allows Dunne to transplant some of his coastal observations to Middle America.
Attractive and fortyish, she is, we learn in a rush of new facts, the illegitimate daughter of Blue Tyler, a child movie star of the 1930s who never managed the crossover to grown-up movie star, and of Jacob King, a powerful mobster who was gunned down by business associates in Las Vegas. Her beloved adopted father, Brendan Kean, a big-league criminal lawyer who once got Jacob King off for murder, was Irish but not very Catholic. In one of Dunne’s nicer anecdotes, we hear that Brendan dutifully accompanied his wife to Mass every Sunday but waited outside the church, smoking, until the service ended; after thirty years of this he acknowledged to her that he was an atheist, and she told him that she was too; when he asked why she’d never mentioned it, she replied, “You never asked.”
Teresa graduated from Smith, married and divorced twice before she was twenty-six, then took a degree at Yale Law School, passed the bar, and went into practice with Brendan, though she lived on the Upper East Side and he stayed in Queens. After his death she dissolved the firm and became a victims’ rights advocate in D.C., but she accepts a huge retainer to work with Cline in Lajoie’s defense.
Here Dunne conceives a further invasion of the Heartland by the rich and infamous. Teresa and Max Cline are hired by Lajoie’s half-sister “Carlyle,” née Alice Faith Todt, a smart-talking supermodel and teen idol who made $19 million in her seventeenth year. Carlyle named herself after the New York hotel—“I just thought Carlyle sounded cool. I mean, I wasn’t going to call myself fucking Marriott, was I? Days Inn?” But if Carlyle is a triumph of Dunne’s ear for a certain kind of celebrity talk, she too brings too many people along with her. We hear about her favorite photographer, Alex Quintero, about her agent, Marty Buick (Teresa’s roommate at Smith), and about Carlyle and Lajoie’s mother, a teenage drifter who bore Duane on her fourteenth birthday and Carlyle three years later, and before long went off and joined an Indian meditation cult. Duane’s adoptive father “accidentally” shot his wife and himself while deer hunting.
The trial itself adds an infusion of at least vaguely recognizable types: a tough but sensible Judge Judy type who presides; Lorna Dun, the bitchy MC of a popular cable-TV discussion show and reputedly Poppy McClure’s lover; Clifton Snow, the “aging movie-star president of the National Rifle Association” who’s a big contributor to Poppy McClure’s campaign; Mark Bergquist, the conservative junior senator from S.M. with presidential aspirations and a fling with Lorna Dun in his past. In his New Yorker piece Dunne summons up the spirits of home-grown violence presiding over the midwestern landscape—Quantrill’s raiders, the James brothers, Bonnie and Clyde, Charles Starkweather—and some of these are mentioned in Nothing Lost as well. But as Dunne adds amusing or appalling people from elsewhere, the wide-open space of South Midland seems bursting with diverse characters, rather like Los Angeles or Long Island.
The boldest intrusion comes with Teresa Kean’s memory of her recent one-night stand in Washington with Jack Broderick, a leading character in Dunne’s The Red White and Blue. They met at a presidential dinner for the Supreme Court and ended up in bed at her place. The years since the Reagan administration have been hard on Jack, who has undergone open-heart surgery, received a prosthetic aortic valve, and now gives himself penile injections to overcome impotence. He dies in Teresa’s bed post coitum, still erect, and she has to struggle to get him clothed respectably enough for EMS and the police. Before he dies he says that he wanted to meet her in order to tell her of her birth-mother’s later life, when he knew her as “an itinerant bag lady” with a small annuity and a long string of husbands. Teresa is puzzled and a little annoyed, but there’s no sign of serious mutual attraction; it’s the delicate medical matters that get most attention.
Toward the book’s end another kind of point is suggested. Early in the trial but late in the novel, Teresa has another brief affair, this time with a man who’s been on hand all along but not until now given close attention: J.J. McClure, Poppy’s husband, the prosecutor with whom Teresa must contend. We have heard from time to time that his younger brother, Emmett, drowned on the family farm thirty-five years earlier at the age of three, while playing with J.J., four years his senior. At Emmett’s urging, J.J. would hold the child’s head under water in the farm pond for a few moments and then release him. Kids love games of mock risk, and small ones long for the attention of their older siblings, but this game ended tragically when J.J. held on too long and Emmett drowned. Even worse, the disaster was witnessed by the boys’ father, unable to intervene because he was crippled by polio; he tried to convince J.J. that he wasn’t to blame for killing his younger brother, but he shot himself in the barn two decades later.
Here Dunne imagines hinterland horror that’s more complex than the grotesqueries he usually describes. He presents both Teresa and McClure as capable of feeling, and it’s not unbelievable that they should accidentally meet during a four-day recess early in the trial, have dinner in another town, and tell each other their most intimate secrets as they spend the next three nights together in various motels. Their professional impropriety is detected and quickly punished—she is barred for life from practicing law in South Midland (not, perhaps, such a severe penalty), while he gets a four-month suspension and loses his job. The judge declares a mistrial, but it hardly matters, since Gover and Lajoie drown along with two policemen when the van returning them to jail skids into a river during a torrential storm.
Teresa and Max Cline had already learned the true history behind the Parlance murder, which was quite as ugly as might be supposed. A snitch tells them that in prison Duane Lajoie was a member of the sexual stable run by an entrepreneurial panderer called “Wonderman,” who sold sex and drugs to his fellow inmates and forced his punks to wear women’s underwear and makeup and answer to female nicknames; Lajoie was “the Princess.” And Wonderman himself was the man known outside as Edgar Parlance. Evidently Lajoie and Gover accidentally encountered Parlance on the road and killed him, both in revenge for Lajoie’s humiliations and to prevent him from telling anyone about them. In this account, the P on the corpse’s chest signified not “Parlance” but “Princess.”
Though Lajoie would surely be convicted no matter what, this dreadful story might well provide mitigating circumstances that could save him from the death penalty. But the Kean– McClure scandal and the drowning of the accused men make it all immaterial, and the book has no more to do than tell what became of those who survived—the author’s revenge on his characters, as it were. Poppy had to leave Congress and content herself with “preaching the conservative sermon on talk radio” from Washington. Wormwold ran for governor and lost big. Jocko Cannon became Carlyle’s bodyguard until she shot him in the stomach when he tried to rape her. In Dunne’s books the truth is almost always dispiriting or appalling. Knowing the turf means not being fooled by the disguises people wear there but, instead, seeing through them to “the essence of things.” Yet the essence of things, the awful truth, is usually rather like the contents of the human body, pretty nasty stuff when you get close to it.
Nothing Lost is often very funny, in ways that keep reminding us that other people’s failings aren’t wholly unlike some of our own. But Dunne has his surprises, too. His satiric comedy can lead toward a kind of seriousness we don’t expect, as when he has J.J. McClure confess to Teresa that his brother’s death was not, in simple truth, accidental. Holding Emmett’s head under water that last time, he knew that the game was lasting too long, that Emmett’s struggles were not part of any game but real terror, that in some seven-year-old’s version of a gratuitous act he meant, for no reason at all, to be killing a brother he was fond of. He had nothing else to tell Teresa about this, just the truth about what happened; he went on living a quiet, reasonable life, with no visible signs of damage or even regret, getting a Mexican divorce from Poppy, moving to Montana to be a rancher and cattleman’s lawyer, and remarrying, though his second wife soon died of cancer. What he should feel is not allowed to substitute for whatever it was he did feel, and this is an impressive sort of truthfulness.
Teresa’s end is also unexpected. She drops from sight after her disbarment, and Max Cline reports getting postcards from her, from Jerusalem, Trieste, Vermont, Lake Louise, Honolulu, and Mantoloking, New Jersey, where her adoptive parents were buried. Like postcards generally, these seem to report feelings rather than describe them:
Finally got to Israel. A suicide bomber blew up a coffee shop across the street from my hotel the night I arrived. I slept through it. I hope that’s not a metaphor. xoxox T.
Her last communication is a phone call from Jim Hogg County, Texas, where she is teaching English to Mexican children. Her Grand Tour of repentance, if that’s what it was, ended, Max learned, when she jumped to her death from the twelfth floor of the Angkor Wat, a Las Vegas hotel built on the site of an earlier one, King’s Playland, which her father, the mobster, built before his murder. Her body was well dressed but utterly lacking in ID; no alcohol or drugs were found in her system, no indications of prior struggle or sexual activity. Max can only identify her and take her to Mantoloking for burial with the Keans.
Max Cline has much of Dunne’s tough-minded respect for the unpleasant reality behind the surface, but his efforts to sum up Teresa’s case don’t solve it. He calls her “the victim of her own blood,” the inheritor of Blue Tyler’s and Jacob King’s careless transgressions, their failure to know or care what devastation they left behind them. This sounds a bit like a lawyer’s closing argument to the jury, and such summations never tell the simple truth. Dunne, despite his outrage about much of the life around him, was no easy moralizer. His targets were reflexive tender-mindedness and rank hypocrisy, and they often drew him toward nihilistic comic exaggeration. In his fiction he played a ruthless game of going too far, and often winning, if that means leaving the reader exasperated by the extravagant, even baroque, forms his accounts of small truths could take. But in the later pages of Nothing Lost, where he faces the moral desolation of J.J. McClure and Teresa Kean even while refusing to say, or make them say, what they understand and feel about it all, he moves beyond an idea of truth as revelation or exposé, toward a sense of it that includes the mystery that lingers even after we think we know all about someone’s life. At its best, John Gregory Dunne’s sense of truth recognized that mystery and deserves to be taken very seriously indeed.
June 24, 2004