Failure is a dominant theme in the fiction of John Gregory Dunne. In Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season (1974), an autobiographical novel, Dunne, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, goes to Las Vegas to cure himself amid the prostitutes and second-rate comedians of the world’s most tawdry community, a mecca of failure which turns high rollers into low livers. Tom Spellacy, the Los Angeles homicide cop in True Confessions (1977), lives in the shadow of Des, his powerful, esteemed younger brother, a monsignor on his way to becoming a cardinal. Investigating the murder of a prostitute, Tom stumbles upon a network of corruption which he exposes, ruining his brother’s career. Similar discoveries drive the protagonist of Dutch Shea, Jr. to suicide.
The protagonists of Dunne’s first two novels are able to deal with the chaos of their lives and become reconciled to their failures, but Dutch Shea, Jr. feels responsible not only for his own chaos but also for that created by those connected with him. This burden becomes even heavier when a man who thinks he has no illusions about anything finds out that his world makes even less sense than he has thought.
The novel opens with Dutch’s thoughts about the death of his adopted daughter Cat, who was killed by an Irish Republican Army bomb in a London restaurant. He blames himself because he recommended the restaurant. All of the crimes in the novel, both violent and nonviolent, seem to point an accusing finger at Dutch or someone he loves.
Dutch, once a promising attorney with a distinguished clientele, now represents pimps, thieves, and murderers. Since his divorce, he has lived in a crime-infested neighborhood where he can better cultivate his failure, which he blames on Cat’s death. When a burglar breaks into Dutch’s apartment, he ridicules the lawyer for not having anything worth stealing. With the intruder’s gun stuck in his mouth, Dutch at first wants to live and then wonders if he really does. The novel consists of his discovery of the evidence against himself and against the world, which leads him to sentence himself to death. He considers his life “a Chinese box full of uninvestigated mysteries” and forces himself to open the series of boxes, knowing that what he will find will increase his guilt and despair.
Dutch would like to find solace in religion but cannot. “In general, he felt about God as he felt about the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories: he was willing to believe.” He occasionally experiences “faith attacks,” but they never last very long because of the overwhelming triviality and hypocrisy of Catholicism as practiced in his community. He attends a church where George Patton is depicted in a stained-glass window, where one priest wears Adidas running shoes while conducting mass and another builds a sermon around golf (one of the satirical highlights of an often funny novel). Another priest in the archdiocese steals seven million dollars from a missionary society. (Dutch is attorney for the archdiocese until he is fired for having a prominent pimp as a client.) For Dutch, religion has lost most of its meaning, becoming just one of a handful of ways for him to shut out temporarily the intrusions of his memory, his guilt.
Like religion, law is little more than another way to “anesthetize the memory.” He considers court to be restful, a refuge, a “moat against my life.” Dutch feels comfortable in a courthouse because everywhere he looks...
(The entire section is 1436 words.)