John Gregory Dunne Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

All of John Gregory Dunne’s novels are about power and personal integrity. The power is exercised by Roman Catholic prelates, the police, criminals, studio bosses and producers, quasi-legitimate businessmen, and politicians. The person of integrity is often the estranged member of a family, such as Jack Broderick in The Red White and Blue and Playland or Tom Spellacy in Dunne’s brilliant debut novel, True Confessions. The head of the family—Jack’s father, Hugh Broderick, or Tom Spellacy’s brother, Des (Desmond), for example—stands for the patriarchal and corrupt aspects of society. Tom Spellacy may have spurned his brother Des’s ambitious careerism in the Church, but he has also been a bagman for a local crime king. Jack Broderick has not followed his father into the world of high-stakes politics and business, yet he writes screenplays for craven Hollywood producers. In other words, even Dunne’s moral characters are compromised. They come by their moral code precisely because they are flawed figures. Dunne’s early exposure to Roman Catholicism is most telling in his awareness of how virtue and vice coincide.

True Confessions

True Confessions begins and ends in the 1970’s, when Tom Spellacy has retired from the police department and his brother Des, an ambitious Catholic clergyman, is spending the last of his thirty years of exile in a small, neglected parish. Somehow Tom’s actions have led to his brother’s downfall, and the heart of the novel, “Then” (set in the 1940’s), tells the story that leads to “Now,” the first and last chapters.

The first “Now” section centers on Des’s call to his brother Tom. Why, Tom wonders, has Des summoned him to his parish in the desert? The brothers have been intensely preoccupied with each other and yet estranged. Although one has chosen a career in the police department and the other the Church, they are both worldly men. Tom cannot seem to live down his corrupt period on the vice squad, when he was “on the take,” a bagman for Jack Amsterdam, a supposedly legitimate contractor and a pillar of the Church, but in fact a thug with numerous illicit enterprises. Amsterdam is the link between the careers of the two brothers, since Des has relied on Amsterdam to construct many of his parish’s impressive church buildings, even though Des knows that Amsterdam has padded his payroll and physically intimidated other contractors so that they have not put in bids for the construction projects. Des has also functioned as a kind of enforcer for Cardinal Danaher, who is trying to centralize power by depriving parish priests of their autonomy.

When the two brothers meet in the opening section of the novel, Des tells Tom that he is dying. It is this announcement that precipitates the action of the novel, as Tom remembers the events that have led to his brother’s dramatic announcement.

“Then” begins as a traditional murder mystery. A woman is found with her body hacked in two. There is no blood, which suggests the body has been moved from another location. The cut is clean, indicating that a very sharp instrument was used.

Tom Spellacy is goaded into action by his boss, Fred Fuqua, who is yearning to become chief of police. Fuqua is a systems man. He claims to be able to find patterns in crime, though he has little sense of street life or of how crimes are committed. What also goads Tom, however, is his intuition that larger forces—namely, Jack Amsterdam—are somehow connected to the mutilated body. Tom’s search for the murderer and his gunning for Amsterdam also set in motion the forces that expose Des’s complicity in evil and lead to his banishment from the center of power.

Dutch Shea, Jr.

Dutch Shea, Jr. is one of Dunne’s darkest novels. It includes an epigraph by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “I awake and feel the fell of dark, not day.” Its second epigraph provides a hint of understanding, if not redemption: “for we possess nothing certainly except the past”—a line from novelist Evelyn Waugh. Significantly, both Hopkins and Waugh were Catholics who found in their religion a way of analyzing and coping with the world’s corruption and blindness. This novel of occluded vision is reminiscent of Saint Paul’s admonition that “we see as through a glass darkly.”

Dutch Shea’s father was sent to prison for embezzlement, and attorney Dutch is well on the way to committing a similar crime, having held back money owed to one of his clients, now in a nursing home. Dutch’s demons also drive him, however, to defend criminal suspects that other attorneys spurn. His wife has left him, and he is carrying on a covert relationship with a female judge. He mourns his adopted daughter, who was blown up in an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing in London, but he has also seduced his surrogate father’s Irish immigrant servant. He suspects that his surrogate father was somehow involved in the crime that put his father in prison, and much of the novel deals...

(The entire section is 2081 words.)