January 2006

Elizabeth Kiem

nonfiction

Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne by John Gregory Dunne

“Writing,” John Gregory Dunne once wrote, “is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.”

Two years after his death, some of Dunne’s best literary irrigations have been collected for release by Thunder's Mouth Press -- a little over 400 pages of the writer’s body of nonfiction. The title of the collection, Regards, is taken from the book’s penultimate essay -- a tribute to Barry Farrell, a writer Dunne held in friendship and regard and who died an untimely death. Farrell, thought Dunne, was an all-time class act.

When Dunne passed away in December 2003, many thought of it as an untimely death. His wife and collaborator, Joan Didion, has established it as such by writing her memoirs of the following year with the National Book Award-winning A Year of Magical Thinking and embuing the natural passage of a talented man with the psychic cognition for which she is famous. Regards goes a long way towards compiling Dunne’s best traits as a writer, social commentator and intellectual, even if it fails to establish the man as a class act.

That Dunne was a new journalist par excellence is not to be disputed. He had an implicit understanding of the revelation (revealed, it seems, in cyclical fashion since the dawn of belle lettres) that the best story-lines often fall between stories. A good case in point is a short passage in “Memento Delano,” a retelling of Dunne’s coverage of the California grape-growers strike led by Cesar Chavez in 1968: An exchange with a farmer, in which Dunne is instructed on the vast gap between alfalfa and grape growers, convinces him that “those moments that have no function in the ‘story’... seem in retrospect more interesting, more imaginatively to the point, more evocative of how we live and what we feel.” Dunne finds himself remembering most vividly the details of a story that did nothing to advance the narrative, analysis or politics of the news he was researching. By contrast, much of the unfolding of the strike and the aftereffects as recorded are dated -- they have the same “stumpy legs” of Chavez himself.

Two other essays in Regards are outstanding for their success in turning the non-story into a riveting tale. In “Induction Day,” Dunne brilliantly recounts an anticlimactic demonstration by a single Vietnam war protestor who refuses to be inducted and the unflappable Colonel in charge of the proceedings. The much-vaunted show of protest takes three minutes, the Colonel assesses the rag-tag band demonstrators as having “made a bad connection. There’s no TV down there,” and by the fourth page the anti-inductee has left the premises, along with his gang of supporters, all of whom have eight o’clock classes to attend. It’s another perfect telling of a non-event, in which all of the characters are sympathetic.

“Quebec Zero” reads very much like John McPhee -- an assignment masquerading as curiosity. In this story of a day in the life of the very young soldiers entrusted with manning a nuclear missile silo, Dunne draws his conclusion “that four men, whatever their mental state, could launch a flight of nuclear missiles without outside orders,” and later that “ennui was the most effective safeguard against mental hazard.” It is another brief story of a non-story -- one that, given the subject matter, must have required high-level planning, clearance and negotiation, but that reads, nevertheless, as though Dunne had sort of stumbled upon these men on the job, and decided to hang out. New Journalism, in his hands, becomes accidental journalism.

The collection begins, unwisely I think, with several pieces on Hollywood. Dunne and Didion were as esteemed in Los Angeles film circles as they were among the New York literati. Dunne, more than Didion, thrived on the crasser, glitzier, and (the word for today’s brand of insider sniping) snarkier of their two realms. The five pieces on Hollywood betray too much satisfaction with his role as a player in a game for which he has ultimate disdain, too much certainty that self-deprecation will cover his own bombast. Even for a reader with no aspirations towards the life a screenwriter, it is galling to read the deprecations of an insider for the type of work coveted by so many.

But the most jarring thing about Dunne’s split focus between the cinematic and the literary is the recognition that such a gifted writer would continue to expend his talent on projects he saw as non-starters, never-enders, or simply, a “tattered shadow of what you imagined it to be.” That Dunne was a devoted fan of the industry’s predilections, who considered the negotiation and deal-making as much of an “elaborate entertainment” as the product itself, I can easily forgive. That a publisher has chosen to highlight his insider gossip and self-congratulatory anecdotes with as much incandescence as his portraits of East Los Angeles and the autopsy of one nearly made-for-movies victim of hard-knocks and police overkill, Eula Mae Love -- is less forgivable.

John Gregory Dunne deserves a lavish eulogy for his body of work and his wife has given him that and more. His own written words should have been more meticulously and lovingly chosen. A collection that would have best displayed Dunne’s own “Regards” for his trade would have ignored the self-important reminiscences, the sniping with fellow critics, and the navel-gazing about living amid stars and celebrities. It would have given us more of the non-stories which he excelled in telling.

Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne by John Gregory Dunne
Thunder's Mouth Press
ISBN: 1560258160
350 Pages