When John Gregory Dunne was in his early thirties, he had great sport at the expense of friends who were a bit older. As one by one they turned 35, he "found it amusing to send a two-word birthday telegram. The wire simply read, 'Halfway home.' " Then Dunne himself turned 35, and "the joke suddenly seemed pallid." He "became quite simply, for no real reason, terrified of dying."
Dunne told that story on himself in his third book, Vegas , published in 1974. He went on to publish nine more books and to achieve a considerable reputation as novelist and essayist, but his prescience about death, as it turned out, was all too keen. In December 2003, at the age of 71 -- barely a year past "home" -- Dunne died of a heart attack in the Manhattan apartment he shared with his wife of four decades, Joan Didion.
Many people now know about that terrible event and its hard aftermath from The Year of Magical Thinking , Didion's wrenchingly candid memoir, published last year to great acclaim and wide readership. Among many other things, she paid moving tribute to Dunne's accomplishments as a writer and to the intimate partnership the two of them had forged, as writers and as husband and wife. Now we have still more evidence of Dunne's fruitful career: Regards , a collection of essays -- some drawn from previous books, some collected for the first time -- and True Confessions , a new edition with an introduction by George Pelecanos, who correctly points out that in this novel Dunne elevated "crime fiction" to new heights: "Dunne showed a whole generation of then and future writers that a novel could entertain with street authenticity, plot, and realism, and also be resonant and, yes, achieve the level of literature."
That Dunne was the author of a novel that brought "genre" and "literature" together is hardly surprising, for his feet were planted more or less equally in the real and the literary worlds. He read broadly and deeply and had vigorous literary opinions, as I discovered in an intermittent but (to me, at least) highly gratifying e-mail acquaintanceship during the last two or three years of his life, but he always thought of himself as a reporter and conducted himself accordingly. He had a great deal of experience in the movie business, but, as he said in a Paris Review interview included in Regards , he was troubled "that screenwriters today seem to have had no life other than film school." He continued: "They've rarely been reporters, they've rarely gone out and experienced a wider world. I had the army, I was a reporter for ten years, I'd been to Vietnam, not for long, but long enough to know I didn't like to get shot at. I covered labor strikes and murder trials and race riots." Beyond that he was endlessly curious, as he says in his wonderful memoir, Harp :
"Writing . . . is a license to be curious. I, for example, am interested in how things work, in how a creative movie deal is structured, how a conglomerate is formed. How a tooth is reconstructed or an aorta patched. How a geologist pinpoints a possible oil strike, how an immunologist isolates a virus. How a fire investigator knows when a fire is an accident and when because of the pattern of smoke stains in the burnt-out shell and the sponginess of the floor it is arson. How a pathologist knows that the prostate is the last male organ and the uterus the last female organ destroyed in a fire, how carbon granules in the bronchial passages indicate the victim was alive when the fire started and fat globules in the lung mean that the victim was attacked before the fire. How Fernando Valenzuela throws a screwball, how the air currents and the speed of the projectile and the angle of the wrist at the point of release conspire to make a pitch man was not intended to throw nor his elbow to endure."
Not merely was Dunne endlessly curious, he was also especially curious about aspects of American life about which most literary writers are blissfully ignorant. He was fascinated by crime, vulgarity, sleaziness, mendacity, betrayal. He knew that for all the piety and elegance of its pristine official rhetoric, America is deeply corrupt, violent, contentious, soiled. This knowledge was more likely to rouse him to amusement than to indignation, with the result that just about everything he wrote is, in one way or another, immensely funny, with an undercurrent of anger. He was "Irish and Catholic, from steerage to suburbia in three generations," with "a chip on his shoulder the size of a California redwood," and it was here that he found his voice: "A writer is an eternal outsider, his nose pressed against whatever window on the other side of which he sees his material. Resentment sharpens his eye, hostility hones his killer instinct."
In certain respects, the American writer whom Dunne most resembles is his fellow Irishman and fellow (lapsed) Catholic, F. Scott Fitzgerald. To be sure, Fitzgerald was an outsider who wanted in, while Dunne liked the outside just fine, thank you, but each of them cast a cool eye on American crudity and kitsch, and each found something to admire in the American who longed to move from corruption to respectability. Dunne's relatively neglected novel Playland is his riff on The Great Gatsby , its narrator Jack Broderick is his Nick Carraway, and its repentant mobster Jake King is his Jay Gatsby.
Dunne was by his own admission "someone who has difficulty with plot," which is perhaps most evident in Playland but is not much less so in True Confessions . This story of a gruesome murder in Los Angeles and its protracted aftermath is a meditation on (among other things) the "taint on the human condition," as observed and experienced by the Spellacy brothers, one a priest and one a cop. The novel is, as Pelecanos says, immensely entertaining, but the reader simply has to give Dunne the benefit of the doubt as he tries to keep everything in the right place and everything moving along, not always successfully.
No one was more aware of this than Dunne himself. In his essay "Laying Pipe," he describes writing as "manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe," and gives a detailed account of the making of The Red, White and Blue , another of his deliciously chaotic novels:
"Because one has written other books does not mean the next becomes any easier. Each book in fact is a tabula rasa; from book to book I seem to forget how to get characters in and out of rooms -- a far more difficult task than the non-writer might think. Still I went to my office every day. That is the difference between the professional and the amateur. The professional guts a book through this period, in full knowledge that what he is doing is not very good. Not to work is to exhibit a failure of nerve, and a failure of nerve is the best definition I know for writer's block."
Dunne was nothing if not a professional. He wrote to please himself, but he also wrote for money. Much of his time was spent in Hollywood, working -- usually in collaboration with Didion -- on screenplays that did or (mostly) did not get produced but that underwrote his novels and essays. Not merely was he unapologetic about his work for the movies, he also took pride in doing it professionally, and he wrote about Hollywood and Los Angeles as penetratingly as anyone ever has. The pieces in Regards about the movies are among his best, and he is especially on target in eviscerating "the protocol of banality that flourishes west of Central Park -- Hollywood the Destroyer." As he says, the best writers who did time in Hollywood, "Faulkner, Hellman, O'Hara, Behrman, West, Kaufman . . . took the money and ran." The "writers who fell apart in Hollywood would have fallen apart in Zabar's; the flaw was in them, not the community, but this is hard for the determinist movie critic to accept."
The critic about whom Dunne was writing was Pauline Kael. At a time (1973) when she was untouchable everywhere else, Dunne dealt her a knockout punch. The explanation is simple: He never hesitated to say what was on his mind, and he didn't much care whom, or how many, he offended. He had a full arsenal of opinions, and clearly it delighted him to fire away. He was a splendidly gifted prose stylist, and in his novels he created many distinctly memorable characters, but at heart he was a journalist and a polemicist. Since I agreed with just about everything he ever wrote and envied him the grace, wit and vigor with which he wrote it, I can fairly be accused of being the choir to which he preached. But what a preacher he was, and how much his voice is missed! ·
Jonathan Yardley is The Washington Post's book critic. His e-mail address is email@example.com.