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.)
[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 innuendo is never very attractive.
Indeed, "sketchiness" is the book's chief defect. Dunne tries to tell a complex story, one with reference points in several cultures and with historical antecedents dating back several decades, in a mere 176 pages. It is not enough, though his spare and affecting prose does convey considerable information in limited space. But what we need and do not get, are some solid analytical passages and...
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some of those individual case studies (à la Oscar Lewis) which help to make concrete the suffering and endurance that statistics alone cannot convey.
Dunne does not even give us a depth portrait of Chavez. Now and then he drops a clue or an off-hand comment, but there is no confrontation with Chavez' personal style or the thrust of his mind. Some of Dunne's offhand comments sound, intriguingly, rather hostile…. The portrayal of individuals can be legitimately ignored when an author wishes to focus instead on patterns of group behavior. But when sociological insights are likewise absent, there are grounds for complaint. (pp. 25-6)
Martin Duberman, "Grapes of Wrath," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1967 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 157, No. 23, December 2, 1967, pp. 23-6.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
["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 and fascinating, and Dunne tells them with sympathy but without sentiment. He understands that no matter how sordid or desperate or even meaningless they may at first seem, there is something distinctly honorable in their dogged struggle to stay off the scrap heap. Dunne also has a marvelously keen eye for Vegas itself…. His portrait of the city is sharp, at times painted in acid; yet, again, there is compassion in it as well, for he recognizes that people are drawn to Vegas's tawdry tinsel in search of comforts more complex and elusive than quick gain at the gaming tables or sex in an air-conditioned hotel room.
Dunne himself was one of those people, and interwoven with the story of Vegas and its people is his own story—perhaps the most intriguing aspect of which is that this lapsed Catholic from an upper-middle-class New England background should have chosen Vegas to straighten himself out in the first place. As personal journalists tend to do, Dunne injects himself into the book more than really seems warranted—the catalogue of his sexual escapades and hangups, though frequently amusing, ultimately is wearisome—and indeed seems more interested in himself than in the other people he writes about. The problem is compounded by his admission at the outset that "Vegas" is "a fiction which recalls a time both real and imagined." What, one cannot help but wonder, is reportage, and what is invented to serve Dunne's private purposes?
But those are familiar complaints against personal journalism, and there is not much to be gained by dragging out all the old arguments against it. It does seem to me that Dunne indulges himself in a semi-truth when he says, "There is a therapeutic aspect to reporting that few like to admit…. Reporting anesthetizes one's own problems," but at least he has the candor to admit that his journalistic motives are ulterior.
What, in fact, do those motives really matter? What does matter is that Dunne has written a fine, wry, perceptive, graceful book that does as much for the dark side of the American funhouse as Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" did for the manic side. Neither side is pretty, but each has produced an entertaining and disturbing book. (pp. 6-7)
Jonathan Yardley, "Reportage As Anesthesia," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 3, 1974, pp. 6-7.
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 frankly personal about himself as anyone ever has been in a book—and so the subtitle, a caveat lector discreetly warning the reader something different lies ahead….
This book is—a thing of misery, an object of moral waste, an expression of despair. Dunne knows the terrain so well and describes it in such precise, measured, understated style that he makes his hell a thing of beauty, or, a very peculiar sort of beauty….
Las Vegas! It is as though Dunne had set out to find an environment that was the perfect objective correlative for the misery he was carrying around inside him. And whether or not he set out to find it, Las Vegas was there waiting for him, waiting for a writer of his talent and perception to come along and tell us what it is really like.
He lays it all before us, with marvelous economy, chiefly by presenting three inmates of the city—Jackie Kasey (a lounge comic), Artha Ging (a prostitute), and Buster Mano (a private detective). Each of them, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. Through Dunne's relationship with them we come to know others in the city, we get a sense of what Las Vegas is for those who actually live there after the gamblers, the tourists and the conventioneers have come and gone…. The three are completely realized as characters, three-dimensional as few in novels are today: each has a personal history, a reason for being who and what he is; each is encased in his own little cocoon of responses, relationships and desires—they occupy space. Yet Jackie Kasey, Artha and Buster are probably composite characters rather than literal individual human beings whose names have been changed. Vegas is then, in this respect and a few others, a work of fiction.
Dunne, in fact, says as much in a note prefacing the text…. The difficulties in labeling Vegas become clear. If it is "a fiction," as he says it is, then is it a novel? If, as Dunne tells us, "I am more or less 'I,'" then is it a memoir—as he himself labeled it in the book's subtitle? Or has he just pushed new journalism a bit further in a direction it was already inching? Does it really matter what it is labeled?
To some it matters a great deal. When Gail Sheehy published a series of articles on prostitution in New York City that later became the basis for her book Hustling, there was a great furor when it developed that some of her portraits of hustlers and pimps were "composites"—that is (let's be frank about it), they were fictional…. Critics were disturbed because it blurred further the dim lines separating fiction and reporting. Vegas may well obliterate altogether these lines limiting the accepted "forms." As a novel, as a memoir it is unsatisfactory. But as a piece of writing, it is superb.
Bruce Cook, "Dark Season," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 170, No. 10, March 9, 1974, p. 28.
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 hustle is all they've got….
Dunne's knowingness, his ability to intuit values coldly from the meanest elements of behaviour, make him the most valuable of guides through this weird flatland.
Peter Straub, "Hot & Cold," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 88, No. 2276, November 1, 1974, p. 627.∗
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 truly inspired combination….
The author of True Confessions is, for my money, a very funny man indeed, and if we weren't in mixed company I'd quote a few of the choicer bits. But the humor is blasphemous, scatological, and obscene. Which is perfectly appropriate to this story of a corrupt homicide detective and his brother, a priest, who share a taste for comedy, high and low; a ghetto instinct for finding the edge; and a fine Irish sense of sin. Two players in a game that includes the police, the construction business, and the archdiocese—and the grisly murder of a dumb and pathetic little hooker whom the papers celebrate as "the virgin tramp."
It's not just a murder story. It's not just funny. It reminds me a little of those novels Graham Greene is pleased to call his "entertainments." You can take them lightly or consider their dark side. Yang and yin. That fine Irish sense of sin is at bottom implacable. That's why we laugh. (p. 106)
True Confessions is about all sorts of confessions: the confessions of nuts who call the police after every big murder and the confessions of priests to other priests and the confession a petty crook makes to a cop outside the gas chamber and the dying confession of a pillar of the community.
You might say that what is at issue, finally, between Detective Lieutenant Tom Spellacy and the Right Reverend Monsignor Desmond Spellacy is who has the greater power to enforce a judgment of sin….
Like George Higgins, J. F. Powers, and the late Edwin O'Connor, John Dunne has the Irish-American talent for writing about politics—in the broad sense of all exercises of power—with relish and wit. He knows how the police and the church both trade in favors and find the means for their ends….
In The Book of Kells there's a drawing of two men who sit face to face, tugging at each others' beards; the beards curl upward to disappear into a vast, intricate knot. Only with patience can you trace the line and make out whether the two men are in fact one and the same in substance. So it is with Tom and Des—Cain the hunter and Abel who has the Lord's respect—tugging at either end of the story's thread. Bound together because of and in spite of themselves. "You and me," says Des, "we were always just a couple of harps." (p. 108)
Judith Rascoe, "Sins of Omission" (reprinted by permission of Wallace & Sheil Agency Inc.; copyright © 1977 by Judith Rascoe), in Harper's, Vol. 255, No. 1530, November, 1977, pp. 106-08.
[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 Monsignor, bucking for Cardinal. Desmond Spellacy, the Right Reverend Monsignor, would have been perfectly at home with the Borgias. He sees every step of the diocesan chess game three moves ahead. He knows where the power is, and he knows what he wants. Tom Spellacy, his slightly older brother, is a Lieutenant of Detectives, LAPD. He took the police route as the alternative to a life as a fourth-rate prize-fighter….
[The] little Irish-American world revealed in True Confessions is the real heart of the book. For while there is a complex and relentless plot, the plot is the vehicle to illustrate a world where human beings struggle and scheme and work to keep themselves one step ahead of their own venality, striving, unsuccessfully, for some kind of grace.
Born and bred devout Catholics, even if they have fallen away, Dunne's people are angry that the world and they are so imperfect. The only successful person in the book is the Cardinal, who has somehow made his peace with the tainted world. That peace will come to Tom and Des Spellacy, too, as they finally let out enough anger to wreck their careers and to send them both into thirty years of searching for a way to reconcile ambition, shame, reality, and salvation. (p. 1440)
[In True Confessions Dunne] has reached a brilliant level of literary craftsmanship. His use of ethnic dialect, his ear for the ridiculous and the revealing, yield many treasures. And his gift for recreating the poetry of certain conversational moments gives the book a lyric, elegiac quality as it laments a vanished time, the postwar world when even a lower-middle-class cop could feel some small security in his status.
Dunne has gracefully laid the mantle of humanity over all his characters. There is none so horrible that Dunne does not see in him the possibility of redemption. And this is no small thing in the detective genre wherein True Confessions at least partly lies. It is the first bloom of detective theology, and a fine flower. (pp. 1440-41)
Benjamin Stein, "L. A. Lace," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1977; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016; reprinted with permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 48, December 9, 1977, pp. 1440-41.
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 one-liners: "He rubbed his ass." "Tom Spellacy lit a cigarette." "The bathroom door opened."
The effect of it all has been such that in the present in which Tom recalls the long flashback that forms most of the book, his wife is in a state mental institution, praying to St Barnabas; his daughter Moira (who weighed 161Ib when she was thirteen) is now Sister Angelina; and his son Kev is in "the religious supply game…."
There are disadvantages to having a narrator whose sensibility and style of life are expressed in this way. But Mr Dunne gets a bit beyond Tom's diction, and what one takes at first for a routine piece of sub-Chandlery, by skilful use of his clerical characters. His reverends and right reverends run their churches as businesses, with building funds, loans and endowments, debts temporal as well as spiritual, and connections both on the golf course and in the confessional. It is a secular empire that co-exists with the criminal underworld while profitably harping on what it can do for its parishioners in the after-life. All the abuses and indulgences, of self and others, are here…. Possibly not a tragic situation, merely a shoddy and destructive one, which Mr Dunne catches well: the West inhabited by people who have lost their original illusions and will never be able to replace them with anything higher than Tom Spellacy's "You treat people right and they treat you right and you can retire in very nice shape. The golden rule of the police department."
And if the small and the cheap, the constant corruption and sexual ickiness, come to seem a little unvarying, Mr Dunne keeps one hooked with his double suspense: not simply who killed Lois Fazenda but how are Tom and Des going to take their final fall? True Confessions has a muscle-bound, dirty-talking strength which suggests that Mr Dunne—stretching his wings a little and looking at the glories as well as the detritus of creation—has it in him to write a first-rate Irish-American novel.
Anthony Bailey, "The Religion Racket," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3968, April 21, 1978, p. 433.
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 for the chance to commemorate a virtual antique of a minority group in its own language. The pre-Pope John American Irish are out of political and literary fashion, if not yet extinct, and Dunne has composed a most unsentimental tribute to a seamy side of their way of life.
Apparently more at ease with his characters than with the effort of steering them through a plot, he transmits the dialect in its higher and lower forms—that is, in both the clerical and the constabulary versions, which differ in recourse to polite and tactful expression, having in common an abrupt rhythm, inverted syntax …, and a widespread contempt for fellow men and women…. The epithets "moron," "dummy," "dumbbell," "numbskull," "knucklehead," and "boob" define the outlook of the novel more exactly than the more ecumenical four-letter words or the frequency of what Mencken called "opprobrious names" for outsiders, mostly directed against blacks but including "harp."… Dunne's impersonation falters here and there—in that first line about the merry-go-rounds, for example, which sounds more like a literary tough guy (Pete Hamill came to mind) than the harder-than-hardboiled ex-cop who turns out to be talking. And in the feeling attributed to Tom Spellacy as he investigates the murder, "that everything was connecting in some way he did not understand," which sounds more like an unsteady novelist.
What puzzled me about the book was the shift in the narration from first person to semi-detached third and back, when there seemed no reason not to have left it in first from beginning to end. Dunne doesn't take much advantage of the freedom allowed by the more objective stance. In fact, he sticks so close to the narrow mental confines of his original speaker that the technical problems of pressing the plot through that single character and of somehow representing through him the Church's side of the story might well have been manageable. A beneficial side effect would have been the need to ditch figures of speech like "It was a slum of a relationship surrounded by acres of indifference" and "The broken palm trees along the street all looked as if they had curvature of the spine." But there aren't many lines like those.
Writing about men who are social insiders, Dunne eludes a direct confrontation with the ghost of Raymond Chandler—inevitably conjured up by the subject and the locale. The emotional slum and the deformed palms indicate that Chandler isn't easy to avoid. But Dunne does hold him off…. Considered as a composition for voices, "True Confessions" is a well-cut slice of real life. As a novel, it has a stiff, uncertain quality, as though characters and ideas had been pushed into place before they had time to ripen. I suppose I am stuck with the thought that Tom Spellacy should have told the story on his own. The last line, which I won't quote, because it is worth reading up to, suggests that Dunne could have pulled it off. (pp. 157-58)
Susan Lardner, "The Mind's Ear," in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVIII, No. 10, April 24, 1978, pp. 157-58, 161.∗
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 which Dunne manages to stir in the middle of his book….
Tom and Des Spellacy seem just a mite more complex than Extension comic strip heroes; and the novel's heralded Catholic and political implications appear envisioned at times in a manner akin to a finger-paint version of J. F. Powers or a cartoon remake of Chinatown, another Los Angeles tale.
I don't think the simplicity of the novel is Dunne's fault so much as it is a function of his part-time narrator and full-time lead. It may be Dunne's fault that he doesn't capitalize on his character and try for a leaner, simply superb police story. Instead of a potboiler, Dunne might have the hardboiled kind of book that George V. Higgins has achieved several times…. (p. 315)
The virtues of John Gregory Dunne's non-fiction work suggest how he might have accomplished this sort of novel. Strongest among those virtues is a reportorial distance he maintains, but couples with an openness toward his subjects and the shapes of their experience. His scenes of movie moguls sweating out the previews of Dr. Dolittle (The Studio) or of gringo liberals bullshitting in the Delano bar during the Chavez strike (Delano) are effective because Dunne convinces us that he is suspending his preconceptions of the people he's depicting; and whatever his present conception, however childish or crass his characters appear, he usually conveys an affectionate interest in them, at least a reluctance to judge overtly, along with a sense of himself as impartial or part partial observer, and of his interest in discovering the truth. From his perspective Dunne is adept at focusing on telling vignettes, that at times connect to create their own significance.
Dunne's non-fiction makes me wonder how True Confessions might have sounded had his reportorial technique informed it more fully. Perhaps a version with a greater distancing of the narration from Tom Spellacy but no less engagement with the character and his experience, and a greater dependence on the events of the murder mystery and its aftermath as they happen, from 1946 on, rather than in retrospective frame, to locate the story's shape and ironies. As it is, the telling of True Confessions is more contrivance than natural fiction, maybe because Dunne has tried too hard to signify, to frame his characters for us, to explain scenes toward an end, to invent dimensions. True Confessions is a middling, big book. Somewhere inside it is a good small book, waiting to get let out like the truth at confession. (pp. 315-16)
John Druska, in a review of "True Confessions," in Commonweal (copyright © 1978 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CV, No. 10, May 12, 1978, pp. 315-16.
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 lawyer.") As such, his clients include a man who operates an out-call massage parlor, a woman who has run over her own granddaughter with a power mower,… and whichever other flotsam and jetsam of society float his way….
It is the blurring of Shea's professional and personal lives, however, that provides the book with its impact and its weight. Three decades ago, Shea's lawyer-father was sent to prison for embezzlement, and subsequently hanged himself in his cell. Young Shea was raised by his father's closest friend, a widower with two children. (p. 3)
Shea is a man who wakes and feels "the fell of dark, not day," a haunted individual clearly at the end of his tether, lonely and desperate and doomed. When his surrogate father gives him a gun after the burglary, we know it will only be a matter of time before he uses it on himself. Why, then, should we bother reading further? Because we hope against hope that Dunne's bright, witty, sad and entirely sympathetic hero will not do what we dread he might do, and because the novel is so rich in character and detail that we are compelled to turn the pages as rapidly as our fingers can move. At one point, Shea thinks, "My life is a Chinese box full of uninvestigated mysteries." Most of these mysteries are skillfully resolved by Dunne in a style that successfully blends interior monologue with ongoing action, briskly and humorously moving the multi-layered plot forward while simultaneously chronicling Shea's gradual disintegration.
The accidental disinterment of his long-dead father, for example, serves a triple-pronged purpose: we are symbolically reminded of the resurrection of Christ; we are advised that the past is always with us; and we are clued to the fact that history is about to repeat itself. The wake of an Irish fireman, as another example, is perhaps the best such evocation I've ever read, but here again, it serves at the same time to bring Shea close to losing complete control. Similarly, the intrusion of the black burglar graphically sums up the shabby condition of Shea's present existence and—because a gun figures largely in the scene—foreshadows his self-destruction. (pp. 3, 10)
Dunne falters only once in his unraveling of the various mysteries in Shea's life, and unfortunately with the single most important plot thread. I am not giving anything away when I mention the name "Kathleen Donnelly" or when I say that although I scrupulously backtracked her alleged indiscretion through the tangled undergrowth of the past, I was not entirely convinced by Shea's conclusions. I was troubled, too, by some of Dunne's stylistic tricks: the repetition of key words, phrases, or sentences that blink on and off throughout like neon signs outside an all-night L.A. supermarket; the use of brand names to delineate character; the sometimes "Who's-On-First?" exchanges of comic dialogue; the transfer of verbal tics from one character to another, so that some of the people seem interchangeable.
These are minor flaws. Dunne has written a fine novel that examines and dissects a unique individual whom we come to know—and indeed love and admire—as the story unfolds toward its tragic end. By so movingly bringing to life this troubled and complicated man, he has illuminated our own human condition—and that, in the long run, is what good fiction is all about. (p. 10)
Evan Hunter, "The Lawyer in the Lower Depths," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), March 28, 1982, pp. 3, 10.
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, sin, guilt—and there's plenty of all that in Mr. Dunne's fiction…. His new hero, Dutch Shea Jr., is not a detective by profession but by pressure of events, of forces as much within as around him. By profession he is a criminal lawyer "working out of L.A."
The event that turns him into a fisherman of guilt, his own included, occurs in the first sentence of Mr. Dunne's new novel. Dutch Shea's only child, an adopted daughter of 17, is the sole victim of a bomb set off by the I.R.A…. This horror conspires with reminders of his father's moral dismemberment and violent death to set off two reciprocal and accelerating processes in Dutch Shea. He begins to see and remember what he had put out of sight and out of mind; he begins to come apart at the seams.
At first he throws himself into his work by way of "chemotherapy for a metastasizing memory." He's known as "the city dump" to his colleagues because he takes on cases no one else will touch. Some of them are doozies. Harriet Dawson, welfare recipient, is an instance…. [Anxious] to take her mind off her mind by doing something, anything, she gets to work on the lawn with a power mower stolen by her son. Instead of weeds, she runs over (and kills) her namesake and only joy, her granddaughter Baby Harriet. "Her little fingers were flying all over the lawn." But that's just the beginning. Dutch Shea's interview with her is a setpiece, a little master-piece of black comedy, the horror, pity and farce somehow increasing each other.
But Dutch Shea's examinations and cross-examinations of cops and whores …, are all funny, often chastening, sometimes ghastly, and always deftly handled by Dutch Shea and Mr. Dunne. The latter's knowledge of legal legerdemain, of police, of criminal and courtroom procedure, of forensic medicine and in-chambers fencing, feels like an insider's. The details are precise, unexpected, convincing and full of ironies. Dutch Shea buries his head in the grit and sand of them to hide from all that he does not want to see or remember. (pp. 1, 24)
Dutch Shea Sr. was an embezzler whose scam was exposed by a fire and who was convicted and sentenced to jail, where he hanged himself. He took the rap, however, in an honorable refusal to implicate friends, among whom, as it turns out, was his son's foster father-to-be. Dutch Shea Jr., his father's son in more than the oxymoronic name, is also an embezzler, to the tune of $200,000. Why? To pay off a debt of honor. He is also suicidal. Then a mud slide literally, and symbolically, unearths Dutch Senior's corpse. It is in pieces, like Baby Harriet and Dutch Junior's daughter.
By now some 20 characters are caught in the turns and baffles of Mr. Dunne's mazy plot. Six varieties of shyster, aspiring pols, mobsters, underhanded undertakers, professional mourners, media priests, feminist nuns, horny greenhorns from County Galway, lace-curtain prudes, a low-minded comedian, a high-minded lady judge who has sometimes a pistol under her robes and sometimes her boyfriend, Dutch Shea—all these are implicated in Dutch Shea's cases, all implicated in the mysteries of his natural father's death and his adopted daughter's birth. You won't have any trouble telling these many characters apart. They're a vivid bunch, these wits and butts, each in his own way. Each has his own manner of speaking. And the talk, as in everything Mr. Dunne writes, is music to the ear and truer than true to life—and a good thing, too. If we spoke like Mr. Dunne's characters, we would reveal ourselves entirely.
Like the characters and the dialogue, the shapely yet elaborate plot is something to be enjoyed for its own sake rather than for its implications. Its coincidences, symmetries and sudden gatherings-up of what seem like loose strands do not imply a benevolent providence, as in Dickens; or a psychological determinism, as in Kafka; or an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention, as in Conrad; or a paranoid epistemology, as in Pynchon; or that God is an artist, as in Nabokov; or the absurdity of existence, as in all the Vonnegutterlings and Garpists. Very shyly, the coils and recoils of the plot just manage to imply a slow return of the repressed, as in life. More boldly, Mr. Dunne's bravura plotting asserts an exhilarating mastery in the face of gratuitous risk, as with trapeze artists. That's good enough for me.
But it's not always good enough for Mr. Dunne. If the plotting, characterization and dialogue are masterly, patches of narrative and of Dutch Shea's interior monologue are derivative and artsy, as though Mr. Dunne thought that someone might take him for a mere entertainer. We get Dutch Shea's thoughts in snappy little sentence fragments. Cumulatively, however, these fragments lose much of their snap. The reason, in part, is that they are not organized by a characterizing rhythm, by the sound of someone talking to himself. Mr. Dunne seldom manages to fuse, in a single phrase, the effects of perception, memory, thought and unconscious stirrings as does his ultimate source James Joyce. As the novel goes on, eruptions of involuntary memory increasingly fill Dutch Shea's consciousness. We then get page-long stacks of sentence snips, each its own paragraph, each grabbing us by the lapels, each claiming through position and reiteration a weight we become reluctant to grant.
A resulting oddity is that of all the characters only the main one has no voice of his own. He remains in the mind as a kind of mosaic of memory bits grouted loosely together by attitudes derived from Hemingway via Raymond Chandler. Dutch Shea has less impact on us than what he sees has. We are not as moved by his grief, by his quirky integrity and hard-won lucidity as Mr. Dunne wants us to be.
But all that is to judge this book by very high standards—the kind, though, that it solicits. It may well be that its reach exceeds its grasp; just the same, this year is not likely to offer us many American novels better than "Dutch Shea, Jr." (p. 24)
George Stade, "A Fisherman of Guilt," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 28, 1982, pp. 1, 24.
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 jokes that are racial, ethnic, sexual or scatological, yet mordantly funny. Many of Dunne's characters, like the pathetic celebrity priest who conducts gourmet pilgrimages to the Catholic shrines of Europe, and the business-like pimp who dispatches the girls from his outcall massage agencies with credit card imprinters, are models of bleakly humorous invention. And his comic set-pieces—for example, Shea's confused, rambling interview with a drunken, despairing black woman who has inadvertently run over her infant granddaughter with a power mower—are grotesquely hilarious.
Dunne has a sharp eye for certain aspects of Catholic life. What Catholic has not, at one time or another, either ducked out, or wished he or she had ducked out, of a wake before the rosary began? Dutch Shea, Jr. spends his rosary time on the funeral parlor's veranda, discussing plea-bargaining with a pot-smoking colleague. Some of Dunne's perceptions are dated, though; he has Shea slip out of church before the Last Gospel. Dunne is thoroughly familiar with the grubby realities of the criminal justice system as well, and Shea is a believably skilled criminal lawyer. His dealings with clients and witnesses and judges and private detectives have an authentic ring.
As a plausibly motivated human being, however, Shea is less convincing. In that border area of the novel where character and action work on each other to determine plot development, Dunne loses his otherwise sure touch…. And Shea's passivity is extraordinary. In one notable instance, he has known for 30 years that the man who raised him after his father's death was somehow involved in the events that led to the suicide. Not until the end of the novel does Shea seek to learn the nature of the involvement. That is a little late.
Perhaps life is as unspeakably sad and cruel and capricious as Shea perceives it to be, but Dunne has not provided his protagonist with sufficient dramatic reason to make that judgment. And precisely because Shea's conduct lacks solid artistic justification, this novel is only a limited success. Eminently worth reading for its comedy, it is not fully believable as tragedy.
Thomas M. Gannon, in a review of "Dutch Shea, Jr." (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc. and the author; © 1982; all rights reserved), in America, Vol. 147, No. 3, July 31, 1982, p. 58.
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 Dutch's head. Dutch doesn't blow up, he collapses inward for the remaining 352 pages of the novel. Dutch Shea Jr. is broken from page one. He's a cooked bird and he doesn't even care.
At the same time, nonetheless, Dutch is one very cool cuke, one of the coolest, most offbeat heroes since—well, it's as if Holden Caulfield got tough and went to law school after running numbers for the mob for twenty years and working out in Harlem. Dunne's strongest character to date? That's like calling Willie Mays the best outfielder the Giants ever had. Dutch Shea Jr. is an inverted powerhouse who's in total control in the courtroom. He wins cases for absurd pimps. He dismantles prosecution witnesses effortlessly. Nothing fazes this guy: he's untouchable, he never flinches….
Dutch Shea Jr. was born to take the rap just like his father. Is this why we love him? Because he acquiesces in his fate, a loser by choice, utterly resigned and without ambition or malice? Dutch remembers too much for his own good. I am a victim of memory, he says. (p. 965)
They visit him every other second, it seems, these memories, and he can't kick them out—he makes love to his girlfriend and thinks about his wife. You could make a board game out of this novel, there are so many subliminal mysteries loose in Dutch's head. Everybody is connected. Dunne has created a sinister and incestuous web.
In fact this may be one of those works more brilliant than it is entertaining or even feasible: like listening to the Sex Pistols for more than twenty seconds—genius, okay, but why hurt yourself? Dunne is playing with magnets, never letting them touch. The tension in Dutch's head over his wife is mindboggling. But it's all in his head. He never sees her. They do fight on the telephone every night. God, to have them meet—the pages would spark up.
Dutch almost spoils the novel for us. It is such a weird book: at once thriller, comedy, farce, absurdly sleazy and morose. When he released his delightful collection of essays, Quintana & Friends …, Dunne confessed to being a mimic from an early age. This talent shows up here in the form of some hip, scatological dialogue, wacky, vivid voices, and more livewire characters than in any one novel since Thackeray: underworld, underbelly riffraff to the max. A gangster just out of the slammer tells Dutch he wants to date his ex-wife. "You wouldn't have her number, would you, Dutch?" When Dutch defends a woman facing manslaughter charges for running over a baby with a power mower it's clear some contradictory instincts are at work: Dunne the Hollywood pro is unable to stop himself from turning out a little skit for us. Should we be laughing? Or comparing John Gregory Dunne to Faulkner for writing the best first 42 pages of any novel in the last ten years?
Yet ultimately Dunne just wears us down. It's not that there's too much doom, but too much interior. Unlike True Confessions, not enough people absorb the madness; the tensions are played out internally. As it is, it's a whole novel given to one man's ruin. (pp. 965-66)
Jeffrey Brodrick, "Doomtown," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1982; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016; reprinted with permission), Vol. XXXIV, No. 15, August 6, 1982, pp. 965-66.
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 lawnmower; a flooded cemetery disgorges the corpse of a convict, Shea's father. His daughter, blown to bits when the IRA bombs a London restaurant, lands in a sorbet dish….
Why should a novelist of obvious wit and energy write as if satire were in competition with snuff movies? The traditional art of 'getting inside a character' is here taken literally, and the urge to penetrate human identity via the mucous membranes leads straight to the morgue. Among members of the cast saved from decomposition, my favourite is Clarice from the convent, whose consultancy service helps ex-nuns to package themselves for a second career. But Dunne is not consistently irreverent. Shea's last words are, 'I believe in God.' So far, intimate confessions have revealed only carnal knowledge. The stream of consciousness is a body-fluid; the health of the soul lies in the medicine cabinet: 'She had Comprazine suppositories and Septra DS for systitis and Hydro Diuril for premenstrual symptoms and Naturetin-K for bloat'. If pharmacology has coopted the inner life, what is left for literature to analyse?
Marion Glastonbury, "Plain Terms," in New Statesman (© 1982 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 104, No. 2686, September 10, 1982, p. 24.∗
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 an aficionado of mucus properly to enjoy this book. Even when there is discharge aplenty on the level of action, the book further insists upon it…. But is this agonized suppurating Catholicism, as advertised, or something quite different? Does this book represent a tortured view of human existence, or merely a canny view of bookbuying America?
Only in one area does the disgust let up.
Cat is the daughter killed by the IRA…. When Cat died, Dutch stopped caring. He let things slide. He started using the short sentence. All the time.
Because Cat was different. She called butterflies "flybutters". She wrote her first poem at the age of seven. She called fear and death and the unknown The Broken Man….
Cat, in other words, is cute, and as a focus of values in the novel she is a disaster. There must be better ways of loading a dice than applying smegma to five of its faces, and sugar to the sixth. To make his mixture of disgust and sentiment plausible, if not palatable, Dunne employs a single device: the self-lacerating wisecrack. Cat was eighteen when she died. Volvo dealers claim their car has a life expectancy of 17.9 years. So: "Who would have thought she had the life expectancy of a Volvo?" This phrase is repeated three times in two pages. You see? He feels so deeply that he must pretend to feel nothing. His, you understand, is a tragic coarseness. The book also contains a disgusting stand-up comic, Jackie Gross, intended to make Dutch seem fastidious. But every character has alienated one-liners to deliver, in the same street-wise rhythm.
The book has plenty of plot, most of it concerning the parentage of Cat, whom the Sheas adopted. As the action proceeds, Dutch makes stylized announcements about his life … like a hardboiled inner-city Oedipus; but there is no feeling of unmasking or development. The cheaply ironical tone remains constant through all the legal jargon, the medical details, the lists of brand names and the never-ending wisecracks.
Once or twice, Dunne achieves an effect of some eeriness and power. One of Dutch's clients, for example, admits that he has strangled a pair of hamsters because they were "hassling" him. Perhaps it's just the refreshing change after so much hollow human horror, but those extinguished rodents are the most affecting thing in the book.
Dutch Shea, Jr. pretends to analyse corruption, political, social and moral, but its real ambitions are much humbler. Ignore the epigraphs from Hopkins and Waugh. John Gregory Dunne isn't exposing the spiritual emptiness of modern life, he isn't even strangling the hamsters that hassle him (worldly clerics, liberals). He is turning disgust into another cheap thrill, and fetishizing what he claims to denounce.
Adam Mars-Jones, "Ugliest Is Best," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4146, September 17, 1982, p. 992.