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Telling it straight

Regards The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne Foreword by Calvin Trillin Thunder's Mouth Press: 406 pp., $16.95 paper

January 08, 2006|David Freeman | David Freeman is a screenwriter and novelist. His most recent book is "It's All True."

JOHN GREGORY DUNNE, a modern man of letters, managed careers as a novelist, reporter, essayist and screenwriter. If there's poetry in his trunk or the odd translation from Middle German, it's not mentioned. Dunne, who died in December of 2003, was born in Hartford, Conn., in 1932 into the Irish American upper-middle class, the son of a surgeon. He was raised in the Catholic Church (though later lapsed) and educated at Portsmouth Priory and Princeton (class of 1954). Before he began his freelance life, he was a writer for Time. He was married, famously, to Joan Didion. Her response to his death is the subject of her present book, "The Year of Magical Thinking." An older brother is the writer Dominick Dunne.

The 28 pieces collected here give a comprehensive picture of Dunne's interest in American institutions and enterprises: Hollywood, the media, the courts, athletes -- and class, always class, here in our so-called classless nation. These themes animate his fiction as well. What makes so much of "Regards" a joy to read is what writers call voice. I think I could look at a blind paragraph of Dunne's on almost any subject and tell that he wrote it; the sentences crackle and often finish with a little pop. Knowingness and worldly skepticism are his trademarks.

In "Gone Hollywood," published in Esquire 30 years ago, writing about "dreary cineastes who spend every waking hour in a darkened theatre," he says, "They bewail the fact that Hollywood is a business run by businessmen for a profit (an apercu akin to discovering that the Pacific is an ocean)."

In "Dealing," an Esquire piece from 1983, Dunne takes us through the dance of story meetings about a proposed script of John le Carre's novel "The Little Drummer Girl," reveling in the chicanery and evoking a culture through the particulars of one (thwarted) deal. Hollywood writing of this sort is often similar to Washington journalism: The writers are always trying to protect their access, and it defangs whatever they might have to say. Not Dunne. He keeps his elbows jabbing.

In "Pauline," his takedown of the film critic Pauline Kael, which appeared in the L.A. Times Book Review in 1973, Dunne identifies Kael's nuttier assertions and her "implacable ignorance of the mechanics of filmmaking." Kael, in her account of the making of "Citizen Kane," had written about Kane eating his lunch in the newsroom, "which was obviously caught by the camera crew, and which to be a 'good sport' [Orson Welles] had to use." Dunne's reaction is: "I thought I was hallucinating the first time I read that sentence.... Where was the camera? Were Welles's meals usually lit? Was it his habit to dine in the middle of a setup? ... Is Pauline Kael trying to tell us that 'Citizen Kane' was cinema verite?" And this from a working screenwriter. Telling the tale was more important to Dunne than cultivating the goodwill of a powerful subject. That quality -- a need, really -- is what keeps his accounts of old battles fresh.

"An American Education" concerns the writer Dan James, a Midwestern patrician who had an off and on again career in Hollywood. James had been a Communist and wound up blacklisted. In the mid-'60s, the Dunnes rented a house on Franklin Avenue from James and his wife, Lilith. They all got to be friends. In 1983, using the pen name Danny Santiago, James published "Famous All Over Town," a novel of life in East Lost Angeles, narrated by a Latino teenager.

The book enchanted all who read it, including me. Danny Santiago, of course, was not available for interviews. Dunne was one of the few who knew the truth. The following year, he published "An American Education," the story of Dan James and Danny Santiago, in the New York Review of Books. It's a story of Hollywood and the blacklist, of American money and of what it takes to write authentic fiction. James and his wife had spent some 15 years doing volunteer work in East Los Angeles. His book has its own truth. Dropping the baggage of his privileged background set Dan James free and gave him his voice. Dunne had played a small part in the publication and in a typical Dunnean sentence says, "Given my rooting interest, I found 'Famous All Over Town' a lunatic success, a Chicano Bildungsroman by a septuagenarian ex-Stalinist aristocrat from Kansas City." Some years ago (long after the publication of Dunne's essay), I worked on a script of the novel, later abandoned. It would have made a movie -- but the real story, as Dunne well knew, was about the novel's author.

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