Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

John Gregory Dunne is noted for his stories and essays about Irish-American life and popular culture. True Confessions was both a popular and a critical success when it first was published, and it was later turned into a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn. The novel has remained one of Dunne’s key works, complementing his screenwriting and essays about the culture of Hollywood and Southern California. His fine ear for dialogue, and his fast-paced narrative account in part for his popularity. Yet it is his moral concerns that provide his stories with depth. He is not didactic—that is, he is not preaching lessons. Rather, the messages or morals of his stories arise naturally out of plot and character. He demonstrates the consequences of human actions in scenes that seem to appear spontaneously and inevitably.

True Confessions also charts the changes in American life from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. In the 1940’s, it seems unthinkable that Lorenzo Jones, a ridiculed African American detective, should not only be successful on the police force but also one day become mayor of Los Angeles. Here the novel mimics American history, since Tom Bradley, a veteran African American LAPD officer, did in fact become the city’s mayor. However, even in the 1970’s, in the “Now” sections of the novel, racism persists in Frank Crotty’s reference to Jones as a “pickaninny mayor.” The irony is that Crotty, a devotee of Chinese food, had Chinese business partners upon whom he relied and who deserted him; Des’s most loyal lieutenant in his desert parish is the Hispanic Father Duarte, who believes that Des is as sincere as he is.

From an ethnic perspective, then, True Confessions tells the complex story of several immigrant groups—including Poles and Italians—and how they evolved over several decades. In terms of both style and content, Dunne has created a both profoundly accessible and deeply penetrating work of literature.