Study Guide

Nothing Lost

by John Gregory Dunne

Nothing Lost Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Nothing Lost opens with its end—“That is the end of the story. Or almost the end. I’m not sure I’m the one who should be telling it, but if I don’t, nobody will, so what the hell”—and then orbits recent events in American history. The plot revolves around the mutilation and murder of an itinerant black man in a Great Plains state called South Midland.

The gruesomeness of the murder catapults those involved into the national spotlight, as one figure after another seeks to take advantage of the death. Max Cline, the narrator, is an outsider drawn into the vortex of swirling events. Once a deputy state district attorney, Cline is forced out of office for “lifestyle differences” (he is gay). Teresa Kean is hired as lead defense counsel by Carlyle, a teenage model who is the half sister of one of the defendants. Cline is then asked to join the defense team.

The narrative now veers off to tell a number of different stories—that of Kean's past; her romantic involvement with the prosecutor, J. J. McClure, during the trial, which results in her disbarment; Carlyle's machinations to use the trial to her professional advantage; and the secret history of victim Edgar Parlance, also known as Wonderman. The array of incidents is dizzying, as motives and identities veer off in all directions. Underscoring the often bewildering array of characters and events is the collagelike narrative method, emphasizing parallel stories as multiple narrators take whole sections of the novel.

Reading any of John Gregory Dunne's novels is a vertiginous experience, for his works inevitably blend fiction with the historical record. His method, however, is something more destabilizing than simple historical fiction. With Dunne, fiction challenges—even competes with—history until the familiar is rendered utterly unfamiliar. The quintessential example of this method is True Confessions (1977), his first novel, which swirls around the grisly 1947 Los Angeles slaying known as the Black Dahlia murder. That novel is equal parts social commentary on Irish American life and the novelist's attempt to solve an insoluble mystery.

Similarly, Nothing Lost oscillates wildly between the fictional and late-twentieth century social history. The central event, the killing of a black man in a small town in the middle of the United States, is starkly reminiscent of the Texas murder in June, 1998, of James Byrd, Jr., by three white men, one a former convict. Byrd's body was dragged three miles behind a truck. The character Edgar Parlance has his tongue cut out and is skinned alive before his death.

Byrd's funeral, like that of Parlance in the story, drew glaring media attention, with basketball star Dennis Rodman paying for a burial attended by the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. In the novel, a player named Jamal Jefferson pays for Parlance's interment and inveigles the National Basketball Association (NBA) to establish a memorial award for racial tolerance. Both funerals are spectacles for publicity hounds and grasping politicians. In Dunne's hands, the glitter of celebrity of whatever stripe is always tinged with something darker and unfailingly mendacious.

Dunne began his writing career as a journalist, and his concerns with social issues, racial injustice, and American current events have remained unabated through all of his articles and books. In Nothing Losthe is particularly interested in the “culture wars,” showing that they have far less to do with culture and the health and future of the United States than with bare-knuckled combat. At the center of these debates in the novel is Congresswoman (or as she prefers, “Congressman”) Poppy McClure, who regularly appears on news programs as a resident talking head and self-appointed social engineer. Her methods are aggressive and destructive, and her motives are predictably self-serving and intensely focused: She lusts after the governorship of South Midland.

The novel's title—taken from a passage in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men (1946)—can refer not only to the secrets the characters try to hide but also to the premise of any...

(The entire section is 1709 words.)