John Gregory Dunne Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to his novels, John Gregory Dunne produced a distinguished body of nonfiction, including a memoir, Harp (1989), and other personal and autobiographical essays. One of his primary subjects was Hollywood, the focus of both The Studio (1969) and Monster: Living off the Big Screen (1997). His first book, Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike (1967, revised 1971), reflects his early career in journalism. He combined his talents as autobiographer and reporter in Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season (1974), which recounts a time of crisis in his marriage and in his writing career, set in the milieu of a stunning cast of characters who thrive in the mecca of legal gambling. Dunne’s travel writing is featured in Crooning (1990), a collection of essays that also contains a number of his reflections on Hollywood, the American West, and politics. Quintana and Friends (1978), another collection of essays, is autobiographical (Quintana is the name of his adopted daughter) and focuses on his personal account of moving from his roots in the eastern United States to a career as a Hollywood screenwriter. Uniting much of Dunne’s fiction and nonfiction are his concerns with his Irish background and sensibility as well as the world of urban crime and scandal and the role of institutions such as the family, the Roman Catholic Church, politics, and the entertainment industry. Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne (2006) includes several essays published in the last fifteen years of his life and previously uncollected in book form, as well as his 1996 Paris Review interview.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Gregory Dunne’s fiction falls within the tradition of the crime novel as developed by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Like Hammett’s, Dunne’s novels feature a gritty realism, although his detectives tend to be less hard-boiled and romanticized than those of his predecessors. Dunne shares much of Chandler’s fascination with Los Angeles. In other words, Dunne’s obsession with crime and detection reveals a profound concern with the corruption of urban society. Also like Hammett and Chandler, Dunne is an elegant stylist. Although his sense of plot construction is not as acute as that of the greatest detective novelists, his probing of characters and milieu is reminiscent of writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West. Like Fitzgerald and West, Dunne sets some of his fiction in Hollywood, where Americans seem particularly free to invent themselves.

Dunne’s fiction recalls Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (1941) and The Great Gatsby (1925), for it takes up the theme of the easterner who moves West to find his fortune and a new identity. Dunne, however, adds a keen concern with ethnicity and religion that earlier crime and mystery writers confront only fleetingly and with embarrassing stereotypes. Dunne’s Irish men and women, for example, are not only sophisticated and working class, white and blue collar, powerful politicians and churchmen, but also immigrants and criminals. Dunne’s unique contribution to the crime novel was to give it a sociological context and a depth of background without sacrificing the drama and intense curiosity about events and people that are requisite in mystery fiction. Dunne’s final novel, published in 2004 shortly after his death, exploits his deft understanding of politics and the legal system and shows no diminution of his narrative powers or of his ability to create memorable characters.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Dunne, John Gregory. Harp. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989. Dunne’s memoir is the best source for both biographical information and insight into the sources and the themes of his fiction.

Fanning, Charles. The Irish Voice in America: Irish-American Fiction from the 1670’s to the 1980’s. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993. A comprehensive scholarly work that includes a discussion of Dunne.

Thomson, David. “Playland.” The New Republic 211, no. 8/9 (August 22, 1994): 35-39. Although Thomson is highly critical of the novel, he provides an astute assessment of Dunne’s style and his handling of Hollywood themes.

Winchell, Mark Roydon. Joan Didion. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Includes several pages on Dunne and on the Dunne-Didion marriage. Chapter 1 provides a good overview of how Dunne and Didion react to the East and West Coasts in their writing.

Winchell, Mark Roydon. John Gregory Dunne. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1986. This pamphlet in the Boise State University Western Writers series is a solid introduction to Dunne’s biography and to the backgrounds of his fiction. Winchell discusses only the first two novels and Dunne’s early nonfiction. Includes a useful bibliography.