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John Gregory Dunne Biography

york irish american writer

Nationality: American. Born: Hartford, Connecticut, 1932. Education: Princeton University, New Jersey, A.B. in English 1954. Married Joan Didion, q.v., in 1964; one daughter. Career: Staff writer, Time, New York, 5 years; columnist ("Points West"), with Didion, Saturday Evening Post, Philadelphia, 1967-69; regular contributor, Esquire and the New York Review of Books. Agent: Janklow and Nesbit, 598 Madison Ave., New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season. New York, Random House, andLondon, Quartet, 1974.

True Confessions. New York, Dutton, 1977; London, Weidenfeld andNicolson, 1978.

Dutch Shea, Jr. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982.

The Red, White and Blue. New York, Simon and Schuster, andLondon, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987.

Playland. New York, Random House, 1994; London, Granta, 1995.

Plays

Screenplays (with Joan Didion):

Panic in Needle Park, 1971; Play It as It Lays, 1972; A Star Is Born, also with Frank Pierson, 1976; True Confessions, 1981; Hills Like White Elephants, 1992; Broken Trust, 1995; Up Close and Personal, 1995.

Other

Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike, photographs byTed Streshinsky. New York, Farrar Straus, 1967; revised edition, 1971.

The Studio. New York, Farrar Straus, 1967; London, W.H. Allen, 1970; New York, Vintage Books, 1998.

Quintana and Friends (essays). New York, Dutton, 1978.

Harp. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Crooning. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1991.

L.A. Is It with John Gregory Dunne (television program). Kingfish Video Productions/WNET-13, New York, 1991.

Monster: Living off the Big Screen. New York, Random House, 1997.

* * *

His wife and sometime collaborator, Joan Didion, is undoubtedly better known than he, but John Gregory Dunne certainly deserves a measure of critical attention. Like his wife he has carved out a successful career as a versatile writer.

In addition to novels he has written essays, articles, columns, and books of contemporary journalism that combine objective observation with a generous quantity of personal display, confession, and self analysis. Whatever his subject, method, or venue of publication, he generally returns over and over again to his family history, financial standing, and ethnic and religious background: Hartford, Connecticut, apparently prosperous, middle-class, Irish Catholic.

The numerous essays, articles, and columns, (the early ones written with his wife), cover a large range of subjects that challenge the writer not only eager to speak his mind, but also desperate to meet deadlines and make an honest buck; many of them, nevertheless, are penetrating, intelligent, and informative. Luckily, Dunne has strong opinions on a great many subjects and can communicate those opinions clearly, forcefully, and often humorously; he has a keen eye for sham and hypocrisy and a constructive sense of rage and outrage. His early columns tend to reflect something of the sweet haze of the 1960s, but the later ones show a more characteristic tone of weary, cynical anger creeping into his voice.

In one of the most useful books about the business of making movies, The Studio, Dunne provides not only important information but also a valuable corrective to the highflown nonsense of film theorists and critics about the art of film.

Dunne's very personal confessional style surfaces most obviously in Vegas, the record of his recovery from a nervous breakdown, a subject roughly akin to Melville's Great White Whale for contemporary writers, and in Harp, an impressionistic memoir that begins with a brother's suicide, chronicles a number of deaths in his family, and culminates in his own cardio-vascular troubles. Because it also discusses other matters, including some of the fascinating processes of the author's own methods, it is actually somewhat more interesting than it sounds. For the son of a Hartford surgeon who attended private schools and graduated from Princeton, Dunne rather overdoes the Studs Lonigan role; for readers from the working class, he hardly seems the rough diamond of the tough, impoverished Irish ghetto. In Harp the generative narcissism of any writer finally gives way to the self pity of a poseur.

His novels clearly benefit from his journalism, since they also turn on the same subjects that engage his nonfiction, exploring with a good deal more energy and bite contemporary American politics and public behavior and the variousness of Irish American life. True Confessions, Dutch Shea, Jr., and The Red, White and Blue reflect that variousness with some of the sensitivity and accuracy of a novelist of manners in the mold of John O'Hara. They constitute a contemporary trilogy that in this case perhaps really does deserve comparison with James T. Farrell's monumental Studs Lonigan; certainly Dunne seems to be the only American writer, except for Norman Mailer, still concerned with the Irish experience.

Dunne himself has stated that the three books attempt to show some of the history of the levels, from working class to upper class, that the Irish inhabit in America and how they have fared in this century. As a result, they concern themselves with historical events, from a famous murder case to national politics, in the public arena, while examining the lives and fortunes of some particular families. They also examine the traditional figures of Irish American life, literature, and cinema—policemen, priests, and politicians. In the process, his books touch on some of the major public events of the last 50 years.

True Confessions is based on the notorious unsolved Black Dahlia murder case of the 1940s, and uses one of those brother combinations of 1930s movies—Tom Spellacy, a detective, and Desmond, a priest. The fascinating murder investigation opens up a complicated tangle of religion, politics, and corruption in Los Angeles, a story told in the tough, cynical, funny, and wised-up manner of traditional American gangster and detective fiction. It is a brilliant, moving, and heartfelt performance, far superior to anything else Dunne has written. Less successful, Dutch Shea, Jr. revolves around the personal and public tragedy of a criminal lawyer's loss of his daughter, coyly hinting at but holding off the completion of its haunting and horrific background subject. Like True Confessions, however, the book handles its characters and especially its dialogue with considerable skill and confidence; it addresses, sometimes with defensive humor, the daily curse of criminality and the horrors of terrorism. The third volume of the trilogy, The Red, White and Blue reads at times like a roman à clef based on the history of some of the most successful Irish families in America, which of course means the Kellys and the Kennedys. With considerable ambition, the book takes aim at the all too familiar hypocrisy, horror, and tragedy of the waning decades of the 20th century—the culpability of politicians, the waste of war, the conspiracies of the media. This novel repeats the cynicism of the first two, but goes far beyond, to achieve a tone and a conclusion of utter despair, which though appropriate to its subject may signal the depths of the author's own reaction to contemporary American life.

Dunne's ethnicity, worn like a flag, seems somewhat anachronistic in a time when his fellow Irish Americans have practically become WASPs. At the same time, it has generated three good novels, some autobiographical writing, and numerous articles and essays, which means the concept remains useful to the writer, a notion that automatically endows it with meaning and value. The subject may no longer possess its former richness, however, and the author may have to look elsewhere. He may have now reached something of a crossroads in his career.

His bestselling novels and several screenplays have enabled him to enjoy some of the material rewards of the literary life that elude so many other writers, but like so many successful people in any field of endeavor, he has begun to question the importance and validity of his success. His new awareness of his own mortality, the serial losses of a number of loved ones, his own inherent cynicism, and perhaps even a certain Irish bitterness and melancholy have induced a gloom that his wisecracking cannot lighten.

The close relationship between fiction and fact in Dunne's work is amply illustrated by several of his offerings from the mid-1990s. In Up Close and Personal, cowriters Dunne and Didion set out to profile the tragic career of 1970s anchorwoman Jessica Savitch, but instead created a romance that provided an onscreen vehicle for stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford. Playland, Dunne's sole novel from the period, is a satire that centers around child actress "Baby Blue Tyler, Hollywood's number-one cinemoppet." Monster: Living off the Big Screen provides a behind-the-scenes look at how a story becomes a movie—and the story just happened to be Up Close and Personal.

—George Grella

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