John Gregory Dunne died in December 2003 at the age of seventy-one.
His wife, acclaimed writer Joan Didion, their daughter, and his
brother, Dominick Dunne, survive him. For more than forty years
Dunne wrote fiction, nonfiction, essays, opinion pieces and
screenplays. His posthumously published book, NOTHING LOST, was in
galley proofs when he succumbed to a heart attack. His literary
legacy reflects his strengths as a writer and his courage as a
thinker. His body of work is a testament to what the "truth of
fiction" was about for him. A man of precise words, Dunne was
blessed with a superior imagination and the ability to infuse his
novels with a hard edge, finessed with a bit of humor and sprinkled
throughout with cogent cynicism.
NOTHING LOST is an "American story." The novel strikes at the heart
of the vivid violence, truculent taciturnity, arcane attitudes,
hardly hidden hypocrisy and redundant racism as it resides in the
heartland of the United States. The notion of "justice"
plays a major role in the story. The system is carefully parsed as
it rushes at the reader, carried along on a tide of political
partisanship; prejudices toward those who may have homosexual
orientations and proclivities; greed; gossip; and a soon-to-be
no-holds barred trial that could have taken place in 1934, as
easily as it plays itself out in 2004. The times are just not a
changin' and John Gregory Dunne made sure everyone knows it.
Dunne had only to turn to any 24/7 cable news station, or scan his
daily newspaper for a few days, or peruse the newsweeklies, or read
the headlines in the tabloids at the local supermarket to find
inspiration for NOTHING LOST. Rather than limn flat, stock
characters, he plucked their souls from the popular culture and
shaped them into his novel around symbols, stereotypes and real
people in order to provoke readers into transcending their ennui.
One can almost hear his shouting from the pages, "Get Angry!" "Do
Something!" "The world can be a better place … it's up to
you!" The architecture of the novel finds its foundation on the
ethereal notion that each citizen has a responsibility to his
community and to his neighbor. Dunne pushes readers to try to
understand the violence that pervades our lives --- the craziness
Americans are baffled by, outraged about, frightened of, too often
blind to and in denial over what is happening as the world
In a fictional place called South Midland, USA, a black man named
Edgar Parlance is skinned alive, savagely beaten, branded with a
"P" and then shot in the head. "His death, and the obscene
brutality of it, immediately captured the headlines and the
newsbreaks of the gluttonous 24/7 news cycle, searching … for
the correct and visually gratifying metaphor to validate the
American experience. [Amazing as it may seem] … The New
York Times [carried his obituary]: 'Regent, SM, November
1-Everyone who knew him called him 'Gar,' the diminutive of his
given name, Edgar. And no one had a bad word for Gar Parlance in
this sleepy cattle and farming community … [on the borders
of] Kansas and Missouri." Why anyone would kill this man,
especially in such a barbaric manner, was beyond the comprehension
of everyone and anyone who had anything to say about Mr. Gar
All of the townspeople bragged about how much they cared about Gar.
They considered themselves his friends. "He mowed their lawns, he
hauled their trash, and when the weather was warm and jobs were
available, and he felt like it, he did manual labor for the
Department of Highways or the Burlington Northern Railroad." Yet,
"No one seem[s] to know exactly when Parlance sank his roots into
Regent." And "Dead, he had a legitimacy that he never had alive.
Dead, he … became an icon. Because dead, people did not have
to associate with him. He was a victim, a convenient symbol of
man's inhumanity to man, the kind of black man white people can
most easily grasp unto themselves. To prove to themselves that the
aberrant behavior of the lowest of their kind against the racially
less fortunate will not be tolerated. Like limpets, sentiment and
innocence attached itself to a victim." But when it came right down
to it, nobody knew when he arrived in town, where he came from or
anything else about him as a man in full.
Max Cline tells the story: "My name is Max Cline. I'm queer. I'm a
Jew. And I'm a lawyer. In South Midland, that trifecta is not
exactly a winning ticket in the social sweepstakes. For sixteen
years I was a prosecutor in the attorney general's office. A
lifer." My homosexuality "was never an apparent problem when I was
with the A.G.'s office. Then Gerry Wormwold was elected … to
the office. During his campaign, the Worm had … pledged not
to violate his Christian principles by appointing a gay person to a
senior management position. He could not legally fire me …
but he could … [reassign me from] the head of the Homicide
Bureau to arraignment hearings and the misdemeanor courts. I
As chance would have it, the Parlance murder puts Max in a unique
position. When the legendary civil rights attorney Teresa Kean
comes to town to defend one of Gar's killers she asks him to be
second chair. Max is both delighted and shocked. The convict's
half-sister, who happens to be the youngest, richest, hottest model
to grace fashion runways and magazine covers, hired her. J. J.
McClure, who was Max's replacement at the A.G's office, is the
prosecutor. His wife, "Congresswoman Sonora (Poppy) McClure, La
Pasionara of the Republican right wing … has floated the
notion that she might run for governor. Poppy's combative
high-octane style [has made her] the best-known politician in the
state." The novel doesn't quite have a cast of thousands, but the
population of NOTHING LOST is large and as diverse as is real life.
The characters are as interesting and flawed as real people are
anywhere in the USA.
John Dunne presents his readers with a contrast from the main
players to the sideshow crowd that appears in most stories set in
rural America. His fans know that when they open one of his novels
"something" in their "take" on life and the world is going to
change. As readers follow the writer through the tightly plotted,
maze-like journey of the narrative they have to trust their guide.
He has set some land mines, throws the reader off the scent,
scattered false clues and shows confidence in his audience to
follow him to the very unexpected conclusion.
Warning: DON'T THINK YOU KNOW HOW IT ENDS. Let the genius of the
writer work its magic on your imagination, but don't take bets on
the outcome. Just buy your ticket and take your ride with no
preconceptions to the surprises in store ... just enjoy the trip
and keep the secrets from other readers.
John Gregory Dunne was a most respected man of letters. His novels
rise to the level of literary guru-ism. He polished them and
perfected them and stood by them with humility. Fans and colleagues
will miss him. His legacy will stand the test of time, and he will
take his place in the pantheon of great American writers.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 13, 2011