John Gregory Dunne Dunne, John Gregory - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Gregory Dunne 1932–

American novelist, essayist, journalist, and scriptwriter.

Dunne is known for documentaries and novels usually set in California. His fictional mood is darkly humorous and his characterizations and mastery of dialect almost always elicit praise.

Dunne's first major work, Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike (1967), established him as one of the New Journalists, a group of participatory reporters who evolved during the 1960s. His portrayal of the strike against the grape growers in central California centers on Cesar Chavez's efforts to organize farm workers into the National Farm Worker's Association. Most critics praised the book for its perception and objectivity. A second work of investigative journalism, The Studio (1969), a satirical look at the business of making movies, resulted from his on-location study of Twentieth Century-Fox.

Dunne's next book, Vegas (1974), conveys the decadence of Las Vegas through the composite portraits of three Las Vegas "types"—a prostitute, a second-rate entertainer, and a private investigator. Against this background he describes the emotional breakdown he himself was experiencing. Critics were impressed with Dunne's powerful and evocative writing but were reluctant to categorize the work, finding it a blend of memoir, reportage, and novel.

Dunne's novels, True Confessions (1977) and Dutch Shea, Jr. (1982), have both been well received by critics and the public. The first depicts the Irish-Catholic community in Los Angeles of the 1950s through the lives of two brothers, one a priest, the other a policeman. In Dunne's second novel the title character, Dutch Shea, Jr., is a criminal lawyer doomed by his memories and by the realities of his work. Both novels have complex, fast-moving plots with vivid characterizations and realistic settings.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)

Martin Duberman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In 1962 Cesar Chavez] founded the National Farm Worker's Association. It was the NFWA which jumped in to lead the grape pickers' strike that erupted near Delano in the spring of 1965.

John Gregory Dunne sets out in his book, Delano, to tell the story of that strike, a struggle which continues down to this day. (pp. 24-5)

Dunne's "objectivity" sometimes serves as an easy way of avoiding the rigors of interpretation; he settles for presenting all available points of view instead of trying to discover where, amongst them, the truth might lie. In failing to adjudicate, he dilutes his own viewpoint: though his sympathy with the strikers is clear, his willingness to admit considerable contrary—and often specious—argument, ends by maximizing the "anguish" of the growers. Where Dunne does take on the job of interpretation, he too often performs it by indirection. This is especially true of his oblique devaluation of the commitment of "outsiders" who have come to the aid of Chavez and his organization. Dunne refers to one white clergyman as "never without a folder of press clippings detailing his skirmishes with Church superiors in the past decade." And he acidly comments that most of the white college students in Delano migrated there because it "was the only game in town" after they had been drummed out of SNCC and CORE. If Dunne has a reasoned case to make against the volunteers he should spell it out. Indictment by...

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Gladwin Hill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike] is an exceptionally incisive report on the anatomy of the strike; a colorful, perceptive examination of its impact on the community; and an analysis of actions of both employers and labor so realistic as to make it important reading for current students of economics and public policy.

Gladwin Hill, "'La Huelga', a Step in the Struggle," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 2, 1967, p. 58.

Paul D. Zimmerman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anyone trapped in a movie house with a horrible three-hour spectacular as his only distraction has wondered more than once. "How did they ever make such an awful picture?" Some of the answers can be found in this fascinating study of the motion-picture business as recorded by John Gregory Dunne, who spent a year amid the infernal regions of Twentieth Century-Fox.

Not all of ["The Studio"] is consistently interesting, for Dunne wandered around awhile before he found his denouement, the fate of the multimillion-dollar "Dr. Dolittle." But even his meanderings are fruitful. Instead of fixing on a single film, Dunne treats us to an unhurried tour of the entire studio at work … always zeroing in on the decision-making process that shapes these products and on the men in control. (pp. 110, 112)

Much of [the information in the book] is familiar to anyone who has followed Hollywood since its disastrous collision with television. The real contribution of Dunne's book lies in its nicely honed portrait of the Hollywood ethos, that gothic mix of greed, hypocrisy, shrewd calculation, mad hoopla and boundless optimism that shapes American films and, through them, much of the sensibility of the American public. (pp. 112, 114)

Paul D. Zimmerman, "The Internal Regions," in Newsweek (copyright 1969, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXIII, No. 19, May 12, 1969, pp. 110, 112, 114.

Tracy Alig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Presumably [Dunne's purpose in The Studio] was to give his readers an objective look at the phenomenon we know as Hollywood. How can anything about Hollywood be objective? This book comes pretty close, and in that lies its chief merit.

Dunne begins by telling us something we should already know: that the mass media have formed many of our responses to life situations….

Many of the norms provided us by movies and television have proved inadequate and inaccurate, and Dunne, through objective reporting and excellent characterization, shows us why. The Studio reveals a closed society. When I read some of the short-sighted opinions of these men, I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time….

The author does a spectacular job of characterization of studio personnel, from Darryl and Richard Zanuck downward. There is no gossip (in a book about Hollywood!), and the impression is that these are men who work, think and talk constantly about their medium. If their personal lives are messy, it is because they have no personal lives.

Plenty of incidental information can be gleaned from these pages, too….

Movies and their production represent the American phenomenon at its most vulgar and most spectacular. The Studio is a top notch piece of journalism describing them. Even those who don't see many movies should thoroughly enjoy this book. But the people who really should read it are the movie people, from stars to stagehands. The pity is, however that they probably wouldn't recognize themselves without their makeup.

Tracy Alig, in a review of "The Studio," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1969; all rights reserved), Vol. 121, No. 1, July 5, 1969, p. 17.

A. Croce

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We know before we open Dunne's book [The Studio] that the people in it are going to be foolish and vulgar and, sure enough, they are—a whole cast of celebrities, studio execs and functionaries caught in the act of sweating, belching, cringing, chewing hangnails and saying things like: "We've got entertainment and a message in this picture, Arthur." What we hadn't expected, possibly, is to find no one to side with. Even Lillian Ross' Picture had its sad little hero. But no one on the Fox lot fights to make things like Planet of the Apes, Dr. Dolittle, Star!, The Boston Strangler and Hello, Dolly! Dunne's book has the built-in tedium, the moral vacancy, of a Maysles Bros, documentary. His picture people, all employees of a company that five years before stood on the edge of bankruptcy, walk through his pages like the grateful dead. Richard Zanuck, efficient and colorless, is the unquestioned architect of the Studio's survival and its champion hangnail-chewer. His father is grateful, too. Sitting in his New York office, Darryl Zanuck tells Dunne: "I was put under terrific criticism when I sent Dick out to head the Studio. What could I do? He was the only one I could trust." The corporate drama has all passed over. The Studio is the epilogue.

A. Croce, in a review of "The Studio," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1969; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016; reprinted with permission), Vol. XXI, No. 49, December 16, 1969, p. 1283.

L. J. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Gregory Dunne's Vegas begins: "In the summer of my nervous breakdown, I went to live in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada."

It is a miracle he survived. Las Vegas itself is a kind of nervous breakdown, a huge, tawdry pathological distortion of what we are pleased to call The American Dream….

Dunne approached the place as a voyeur in search of catharsis. Thirty-seven years old and death-obsessed, burdened with an existence that, like a bad job of tie-dyeing, wouldn't come out right no matter what he did, he set himself up in an apartment near the Strip and proceeded to eat himself silly on junk food. One knows the scene so well, in literature and in life, and in literature as in life it more often fails than succeeds: the self-pity of the incipiently middle-aged, the nocturnal rambles and ceaseless brooding, the desperate, solipsistic search for some sort of parole from the prison of the spirit. Two weeks in another town, the whole bag.

Yet from this unpromising and overworked clay, Dunne has produced something very like a work of art—a minor one, it is true, but art nevertheless. He is a skillful writer, but it is more than that; it is his clear-eyed sense of the insane trap both he and the people he meets have wandered into, all unawares….

Vegas is less a novel (though part of it is purportedly fiction) or a documentary (though it is that, too) than a prolonged agonized meditation on the true value of life on earth. Dunne himself is never far from its center, observer and participant, whether making the rounds of the clubs or taking steam in a Turkish bath or ruminating about sex and a Catholic boyhood or sitting in his room catatonically watching television, wishing he were someone else. His conclusions will not lift many hearts, but at least he went home in the end. It may seem odd to say it, but this is also a very funny book—or I should say comic, in the sense that comedy is tragedy gone mad. And all too horribly real.

L. J. Davis, "Round and Round It Goes," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1974, The Washington Post), February 3, 1974, p. 3.

Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Vegas"] is an exercise in journalism-as-therapy. Dunne makes no bones about that. (p. 6)

Dunne set himself up in a ticky-tacky Vegas apartment and began to roam the Strip, in search not so much of adventure as of the company that misery loves. He found plenty of it, most notably in the persons—all pseudonymous and to some degree fictitious—of a prostitute named Artha …; Buster Mano, an amiably cynical private eye with a special knack for tracking down fled husbands; and Jackie Kasey, a "semi-name" comedian who grossed over $100,000 the year before, yet, in spite of that and his bluster and bustle, remained resolutely unknown and mediocre.

Their stories are funny, poignant...

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Bruce Cook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Gregory Dunne's [Vegas] is as good as it is difficult to classify. I've been trying to put a label of some sort on it ever since I finished it. He subtitles it "A Memoir of a Dark Season," and that sounds like just another arty, slightly cryptic subtitle, but in this case it is justified; the author is being helpful—and precise. Dunne has a reputation as a "new journalist" left over from a time when the phrase seemed to mean something to people. The book's subjective tone and tight, strong dialogue make it look like a novel, sound like "new journalism." Well, it's not—not, in Tom Wolfe's sense. No, Vegas is far more personal than that. John Gregory Dunne, in fact, has been about as...

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Peter Straub

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Gregory Dunne's masterly account of his season of breakdown, Vegas, proves that emotional deadness, if intended and built into the style, can paradoxically turn up the narrative juice. Vegas is far closer to reportage and autobiography than to fiction, and the reportage is notably clear-eyed and perceptive. In the discount hell of losers and grifters—with steady infusions of meaty suckers with pinky rings and nametags—which is Las Vegas, Dunne chose to ride out his crack-up, just drifting through and taking notes. The book is bitter and touching at once, utterly compulsive reading. The dialogue is from the bottom of the world, spoken by people who hustle by reflex and have passed caring that the...

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Judith Rascoe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We might have known he'd do something like this….

I wonder if Dunne said, "Eureka!"

That is, I wonder if he woke up in the middle of the night to find True Confessions all right there in his head—that priests and detectives, Irish Catholicism of the Fifties, Los Angeles (his home these days), and Harold Pugh had recombined themselves into a tale of fraternal rivalry, politics, and murder….

Probably not. Writers don't have it that easy…. Dunne may have had to sweat blood over this book, but the result is one of those novels in which all the elements fit together so aptly and simply and apparently naturally that it seems, like vodka and orange juice, a...

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Benjamin Stein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In True Confessions a] woman has been found murdered in a rundown section of Los Angeles. She has been neatly cut in half and left in a vacant lot; the press seizes upon the murder of "The Virgin Tramp" by a "Werewolf Killer." Beginning with the police, all Irish-Americans, who work on the girl's case, John Dunne weaves a story of the entire Irish-American community in Los Angeles for a few weeks in 1946. It is a story of layer upon complex interconnected layer of venality, corruption, taint, and animal energy seen through the eyes of two of the men intimately involved in the crime and the evils that ripple from it.

The two men are brothers. One is a rapidly rising, ambitious Machiavelli of a...

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Anthony Bailey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Boston, Massachusetts is sometimes said to be the city where Irish politics found their fullest expression. According to John Gregory Dunne's novel [True Confessions], Los Angeles is the city where Irish-American cops and clerics were or possibly are most on the make and take. In fact, Mr Dunne does not quite name LA, though the delimiting geography is all there; and the time remains vague—a year or so after the Second World War. Tom Spellacy, a retired policeman, is looking back from now to then….

There is enough plot here for several seasons of an ethnic cop television series. But Mr Dunne keeps it all jumping; he also keeps counterpointing his already pithy paragraphs with terse...

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Susan Lardner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The very first line [of "True Confessions"]—"None of the merry-go-rounds seem to work anymore"—sets a cheerless scene; that line is spoken at a distance of thirty years or so from the main events and hints at happier times, but there is hardly a wisp of cheer in "True Confessions," not counting a large portion of malicious humor. "This is a work of fiction," Dunne declares in a defiant paragraph of introduction. "The author is aware of the anachronisms and ambiguities in the social and cultural punctuation of this book, as he is aware of distortions of time and geography." The reader, on guard against complaining of trivial inaccuracies, gradually begins to suspect that the work of fiction has been produced mainly...

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John Druska

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

About halfway through, True Confessions becomes an intriguing read. With the history of the Spellacy brothers' typical escape from an Irish ghetto, via seminary for one, prize-fighting and police department for the other, as backdrop, the mystery of the so-called "Virgin Tramp" murder turns into a fascinating case of detection, as well as an inevitable sequence of revelations about the network of shady and often shared connections that Des and Tom's escape has required of them. By the time the mystery ends in anticlimax, a new fix and Tom's revenge on an old boss from his bagman days, Tom has lost some friends, Des his bishopric, and the reader some of that buoyant sense of voyeurism which mystery creates and...

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Evan Hunter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Gregory Dunne's new novel [Dutch Shea Jr.] has its roots in John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra, George V. Higgins' Kennedy for the Defense, James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan, James Joyce's Ulysses, and any number of Ross Macdonald's "Lew Archer" mystery novels. For all that, Dutch Shea, Jr. is an original: a very serious, very funny, very Irish-Catholic, very suspenseful and—when all is said and done—altogether marvelous book.

Outlining its complicated plot is like trying to describe a spiral staircase without using one's hands. Dutch Shea, Jr. is a criminal lawyer. (A black burglar who breaks into his apartment calls him "some kind of pimp...

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George Stade

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Gregory Dunne, reporter, essayist, novelist, scriptwriter, wry observer of California mores, is best known for two of his five earlier books ["Vegas" and "True Confessions."] … If you liked these earlier books, you will like "Dutch Shea, Jr." For one thing, the heroes of all three books are "people without illusion"—except for the illusion that they are without them.

The detectives among Mr. Dunne's characters are exemplary; like their West Coast ancestors in Hammett, Chandler and Ross MacDonald, they are people who "expected the worst" and to whom "the worst did not mean much," people who "accepted as a given the taint on human nature." Detectives imply mysteries; mysteries imply crime,...

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Thomas M. Gannon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like True Confessions, Dutch Shea, Jr. is a tale of moral decay in an Irish-American Catholic setting. Its author's gifts lie in the areas of comedy and social observation; he finds sardonic hilarity in the gritty texture of his characters' lives. Dunne is less effective, however, as creator of an adequately motivated protagonist, and his somber theme—the unendurable sadness, cruelty and capriciousness of life in our time—is neither original with him nor organic to his material here. As a result, Dutch Shea, Jr., while a triumph of darkly comic writing, is not a wholly satisfying novel….

Dunne's comic talent is on display throughout the novel. Its gamy dialogue is studded with...

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Jeffrey Brodrick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

That body over there that just blew up—that's Dutch Shea Jr.'s daughter, or what's left of her. Dutch is our hero [in Dutch Shea, Jr.]. Who's his favorite person? The one joy in his life? His daughter, of course, except she just blew up in the first sentence. Terrorists got her in a restaurant. Dutch made the reservation. And just so you know where we're heading—we're going down. Welcome to John Gregory Dunne country: Catholics, pimps, arsonists, bad fate.

As befits a book whose climax is in its first sentence, Dunne presents not so much a plot that unfolds as a character that unravels. Once the bomb goes off we do little more than follow the vibrations, the shudders, through...

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Marion Glastonbury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Early socialist fears of thought-control by business interests manipulating technology seem amply justified today. Modern American fiction is furnished with brand-names. Slogans punctuate dialogue. Dreams are peopled by celebrities. The eponymous protagonist of Dutch Shea Jr, a divorced lawyer with a clientele of micks and mafiosi, keeps the television on in his bedroom as a nightlight, so, when an armed intruder enters, violence in the dark mingles with a shoot-out on the screen. The staccato patter of wisecracks and gunfire in this sort of comedy often gets commended as 'gutsy'. Indeed, entrails are prominently featured throughout. Carbuncles fester; a colostomy complicates rape. A baby is dismembered by a...

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Adam Mars-Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Corruption in [Dutch Shea, Jr.] is more than a theme; it is something of an obsession, almost an infatuation…. There is much mutilation and decay, plentiful autopsies and accidents, and though the life of a pimp lawyer is unlikely to be savoury in all its details, the glee behind the disgust becomes disturbing.

Even when there is no obvious occasion for revulsion, no severed nipple, no shredded baby, Dunne finds ways of letting the corruptible body know just what he thinks of it. It excretes, therefore it is. It bleeds, it farts, it develops blackheads. At funerals it sneezes, spraying the flag with mucus. It has cellulite deposits on its thighs….

The reader must be quite...

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