John Gregory Dunne is a verbal technician who can take last night's garbage, a broken elbow and Mary Tyler Moore, give them a spin in the Cuisinart and come up with quenelles de brochet as he does in "Fractures," one of the 33 nonfiction pieces in this new collection of his works. He pulls off similar feats with other subjects as private as his thoughts about Quintana, his adopted daughter, and as public as the war in Vietnam. But Dunne may be at his most inspired when working over West Coast exotics like "Mad Milo," the Los Angeles private eye with a 92 percent find-rate for missing women (but less than 50 percent for cats, one of which cost the client $25,000) It is clear that for Dunne, a recent settler there, the special oddities of California bring out the best in his reporting.
Written during the past 15 years for Esquire and other publications, these pieces swing in mood from gentle to ironic to savage. They are polished, tightly put together and filled with unexpected insights. You can go straight through them at one sitting and not feel you've had too much.
Maybe it's because Dunne sees things from an angle acutely his own that his perceptions seem so fresh. Rarely bothering with front page news, Dunne prefers to go "out on the outskirts of the story and look back in on it. Out there at the city limits of the piece, at the county line, I find the people who truly interest me."
In the late '60s, Dunne reported the Vietnam war not from Saigon or Hue but from an Army induction head-quarters in Oakland, a Quaker sanctuary for AWOLs in Pasadena, a Rest and Rehabilitation Center in Hawaii. These tender descriptions of enlisted men and the kids of the Resistance, devoid of rhetoric and blame, are among the few accounts of that war -- even now -- that I can bring myself to read.
For example, in 1967 Dunne wrote about an embarkation center: "a vast and cheerless leper colony, cut off from the rest of the Oakland Army base by an invisible line of demarcation.... It is here that the enlisted soldiers of the U.S. Army spend their last 24 hours in the States before shipping out to Vietnam.... It is the first barracks I have ever been in without seeing a single deck of cards, a single pair of dice.... I have seen too many war movies, too many opening scenes in which the camera pans over the platoon as the audience picks out the ones who are not going to make it through the last reel. I cannot help myself as I pass the men lying listlessly in their bunks. 'That one,' I say to myself, 'That one.'"
Dunne's soft tone and sharp intelligence are particularly moving in the two little pieces of this book. "Quintana" is an exploration of the wonderings and worries of an adoptive parent. I am one myself and I can attest to his mastery of the subject. In fact, he comes up with an insight new to me: although the "real mother" is central to the fantasies of adopted children and their parents, like Quintana we do not ask about the "real father." He simply fails to exist.
In "Friends," the other title piece, Dunne muses over his friendship with writer Josh Greenfield, the father of a brain-damaged boy, Noah, and wonders whether he has failed his friend. "We rarely admit how many filters there are on even the closest friendship. We filter what we tell our friends, we filter what we receive from them. The quicksand of our lives is so treacherous that friendship, at times, seems an almost fatal freight. More consciously than I care to allow, I try to sieve conversations about biopsies, delirium tremens and disintegrating marriages.... It was not that I rejected the possibility that (Noah) had scorched the earth around Josh and Faumi and their elder son, Karl; I just did not want to contemplate it."
At times Dunne is thoughtful and compassionate, at times the consummate Hollywood smartass, trading cracks with pals and put-downs with-producers (he and his wife, novelist Joan Didion, are also screenwriters). Only occasionally is he fierce as in his impassioned review praising "Rumor of War" by Philip Caputo. But in any mood he has a wicked eye for detail and a flawless ear for speech. About screenwriting he says: "There are writers in Hollywood with the reputation of being a 'good meeting,' as in 'Irving is a fantastic meeting.' A good meeting thinks fast on his feet, can argue forcibly that the sun rises in the east, and even more for cibly that it rises in the west if that is the way the studio sees it."
In "Realtor to the Stars," Dunne lights up the fun house of Beverly Hills real estate -- where prices start at half a million. "What you are buying is fantasy and asking about the copper plumbing or the light in the basement is like kicking the tires of a Rolls-Royce. Part of the reason is the glamor quotient. Directions are given by personal rather than geographical coordinates, as in, 'Turn left at the Jimmy Stewarts'... Houses have pedigrees and if the bloodlines can be traced from James Caan to Kim Novak to Ingrid Bergman, so much the better."
Dunne saves his outrage for big guns like New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael and other East-Coast divines who badmouth his beloved California. (It's okay for Dunne himself to point out a few flaws, but outsiders who call it "plastic," "kooky," or "Lotusland" had better duck.) Like many converts, he's a bit defensive. And who can blame him? California has been a gold rush of good material.
Again and again Dunne's writing delighted me with its insights and startling imagery. Who else would describe an early literary mentor as a drill instructor "the DI of my intellectual boot camp"? Or, bewailing Pauline Kael's "ignorance of the mechanics of filmmaking," accuse her of "always blaming the cellist for the tuba solo?"
This is a collection of funny, intelligent pieces, written with discipline and grace. They go down easily and stay with you a long time.