In such novels as True Confessions (1977) and Dutch Shea, Jr. (1982), John Gregory Dunne has explored the lives of Irish-American priests, policemen, politicians, and lawyers. In Harp, he takes a more personal look at the Irish-American experience. Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season (1974), Dunne’s previous memoir, used his fears of death and a nervous breakdown as a starting point for a somewhat fictionalized examination of both his own neuroses and those of his times. In Harp, heart problems trigger what he says is his first in-depth consideration of his Irishness. Dunne also looks at the tensions among members of a large family, class prejudices in America, and the process of being a writer.
Mortality runs throughout Dunne’s depiction of his family. Harp opens with the suicide of his younger brother, Stephen, at forty-three. Dunne was closer to Stephen, a graphics designer, than to his other four siblings, but not until after Stephen’s death did Dunne learn that his brother had been haunted by severe bouts of melancholy. Dunne says that he considered depression a form of “emotional extortion a demand for a close-up on the soundstage of life,” and the last time he saw Stephen, the two brothers performed a routine poking fun at such indulgence. That they shared a sense of irreverence and enjoyed each other’s company so much made the shock of Stephen’s suicide all the more devastating for Dunne.
Re begins with Stephen’s story since Harp is concerned with the unexpected, with the impermanence of what people take for granted, with the absurdity of disease and death. Into this category falls the death of Dunne’s twenty-two- year-old niece, Dominique, the daughter of his brother Dominick, a film producer turned novelist. Dominique, an actress who appeared in Poltergeist (1982), was strangled by her jealous boyfriend. Dunne knew the murderer, because the young couple had sometimes stayed with his daughter while he and his wife were out of town. He is outraged that someone can commit such a monstrous crime and serve only two-and-a-half years in prison.
A year after Stephen’s death, Dunne’s sister Harriet died of breast cancer. His brief portrait of Hat is the best of several character sketches in Harp, characters also being the greatest strength of Dunne’s fiction. He presents her as a victim of the expectations for young women in middle-class Catholic families in the early 1950’s. Hat was briefly engaged after graduating from Marymount College, but when the engagement ended, her widowed mother and the aunt for whom she was named consigned her to eternal spinsterhood: “At that time, in that culture, a broken engagement was a temblor on the Catholic Richter Scale ranking just under divorce and a public acknowledgment of a loss of faith.” Despite her youth, beauty, intelligence, and talent as a violinist, she could be fulfilled only by marriage. She never played the violin again following the broken engagement, although her brother occasionally glimpsed her accompanying recorded music with an imaginary violin. She worked at a series of undemanding jobs and was sent by her mother and aunt on ocean cruises on which most of the marriageable men were elderly. Although Hat finally married when she was thirty-two and had two children, the old ladies continued to think of her as a spinster: “In this Irish Catholic warp, it was woman’s lot to be passive; to be assertive argued for an independence that the culture denied.”
The irony of the older Harriet Burns’s attitude toward her niece was that she was a spinster herself. A former nun who never spoke of that period of her life, Harriet was sensitive about her spinsterhood. When a cousin once referred to her as a virgin, she burst into tears. A far from timid soul, however, she moved in with her sister’s family after Dr. Dunne’s death and became a surrogate father for young John and Stephen. Before that, her father had drafted her, then in her twenties, to run his household when her mother died. Dunne admires Aunt Harriet as “a woman of virtue who did not question the idea of service to the family as an obligation to be endured.”
Dunne’s father, a surgeon, died following a heart attack at the age of fifty-two, and an uncle also died of heart disease. Harp came about primarily because of uncharacteristic introspection brought about when Dunne learned that he “was a catastrophic event waiting to happen.” After an angioplasty ostensibly cleared up his heart problem, Dunne and his wife, novelist Joan Didion, moved to Manhattan after having lived in Los Angeles for twenty-four years, deciding that his illness necessitated a change. After blacking out while jogging in Central Park, Dunne faced the possibility of open-heart surgery. The operation was canceled the day before it was to have been performed when further tests determined that it was unnecessary.
His illness inspired Dunne to reconsider his family and its Irishness. The dominant figure in his family was his maternal grandfather, Dominick Francis Burns, who came to Hartford, Connecticut, from Strokestown, County Roscommon, Ireland, in 1869; he was twelve. The uneducated immigrant opened a grocery in Frog...
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