By John Gregory Dunne
Reviewed by Martin Kich
In his most recent novel, Playland [New York: Random, 1994], John Gregory Dunne continues to play to popular taste even as he extends his claim to serious literary consideration.
Dunne's narrator here, as in his previous novel, is Jack Broderick. In fact, that novel, The Red, White, and Blue, is the story of the Broderick family: multi-millionaire Hugh, an astute manipulator of policy and personality; his elder son, "Bro," who has become the most widely recognized Catholic priest in America, his younger son, Jack himself, who has found a niche as a well-known screenwriter, and Jack's ex-wife, Leah, who has established a reputation as a controversial lawyer with a penchant for heightening attention to radical causes. Broadly resembling the Kennedys in their family background, their political prominence, and their enduring though often tarnished celebrity, the Brodericks seem to embody all the material possibilities, the idealistic energies, and the violent tensions within American society during the 'sixties and 'seventies. In the end, all but Jack have died--Bro and Leah in a violent and public manner that is emblematic of the period.
So Jack Broderick is a survivor--the least extraordinary member of an improbable family, who thereby has the capacity to render their story with both intimacy and a certain distance, with both affection and a certain cynicism. He recognizes the paradox that for all of the personal insight he is able to bring to his family's story, in some ways he understands them no better than the reader of the tabloid newspapers in which the courses of their lives have been laid out in ragged, glittery bits and pieces. Likewise, despite all of the reliance on formula and the contentment with superficiality in the movies, Jack comes to recognize that life often plays itself out as though it were the work of a hack hired to doctor a strong but too-original script. Survival turns out to be both accidental and inevitable. Surviving involves certain continuing compromises--with grief, with expectations, and with the vague, troubling uncertainties of self.
In the aftermath of this series of personal and public tragedies, Jack Broderick finds himself, at the beginning of Playland, arrested for murder. After shopping for new bed linens, he notices a Black man, who looks like the thief he turns out to be, moving through the street crowd toward a woman, who looks like the stock-broker she turns out to be, and who is carrying an "oversized Bottega Veneta bag swinging from a shoulder strap." As the would-be thief grabs the strap, Jack hits him full in the face with his shopping bag of "$331 worth of sheets and pillow slips." The man flips backward and cracks his skull on the sidewalk; the woman snatches back her shoulder bag and rushes off; and Jack is left in the middle of a hostile crowd who, once they discover that the cracked skull has been fatal, close in on Jack, assuming that he is some sort of racist random-killer. Thus, when he is finally cleared of the charge, which has been the subject of much tabloid speculation, Jack agrees to go to Detroit to get background for a screenplay. The movie, intended as a vehicle for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, involves the pairing of a veteran street cop and a 7'2" ex-basketball player. Together they will solve whatever crimes Jack Broderick can cull from a contact on the police force, whose endless collection of grimly ironic anecdotes have, more ironically, the concision and rhythm of canned scene summaries.
All of this and a good deal more is recounted in the first 40 pages of the novel, and we are still several rich incidents away from Jack's accidental meeting (his cab runs over her mongrel) with Melba Mae Toolate, a baglady who turns out to be Blue Tyler, a child-star of the 'forties who disappeared from public view when she was about twenty years old. By that time, she had become the lover of Jacob King, a lieutenant (i.e., hitman) of New York mobster Morris "The Furrier" Lefkowitz. King had been sent to Los Angeles to establish Lefkowitz's interest in the early development of the gambling industry in Las Vegas, and he was eventually gunned down when his construction of the ever-more-elaborate casino he called "Playland" had become financially irresponsible. The novel Playland is Jack Broderick's ever-more-intricate attempt to reconstruct the events of Blue Tyler's life. In effect, Dunne takes the basic materials of a Sidney Sheldon potboiler and invests them with considerable meaning by making the process of their discovery and the limitations on their interpretation as significant as the "facts" of the story in themselves. Indeed, because the reconstruction is such a complex process, it is a measure of Dunne's considerable novelistic talent that he maintains a fine balance between the narrative consideration of what are essentially meta-fictional concerns and the narrative interest in the "good" story to be found in Blue Tyler's life.
In effect, the novel is designed to appeal equally to readers who are interested in discovering just what happened and those who are interested in considering how we can ever be confident in our understanding of what happened. Jack Broderick is interested in the story on both levels and, as a screenwriter who was a reporter and might become a novelist, is aware of both audiences. In a very real sense, he is a more satisfying narrator in this novel than in The Red, White, and Blue, though a reader of that novel will have a much richer sense of his perspective and voice than a reader coming freshly to Playland. In fact, a reader familiar with Dunne's first two novels, True Confessions and Dutch Shea, Jr., will recognize some recurring characters and character types, as well as a number of parallel and reworked incidents. Far from suggesting a lack of imaginative store on Dunne's part, these recycled materials reinforce his continuing concern with the interplay of detail and pattern, the relationship between expectation and perception, the necessity and unreliability of both personal and public memory, and the elusive space between what actually happened and what might have happened.
Characteristically, Playland includes a great number of incidents like those that lead to Jack Broderick's accidental discovery of Melba Mae Toolate--incidents that might be said to move the plot forward but which more precisely move it as much sideways as forward, suggesting that, although time may be linear, it has, like space, three dimensions. As in Dunne's previous novels, Playland also includes incidents that turn out to be not causally related to the main storyline, but that cannot be dismissed as wholly unrelated to it. In this novel, the long-unsolved murder of Meta Dierdorf, the mysteriously ordinary "friend" of Blue Tyler, remains unsolved--though Jack Broderick eventually concludes that it can be regarded as a tangent to Blue Tyler's story. Nevertheless, what is learned about Meta Dierdorf's life and about her relationship with Blue Tyler suggests how the dimensions of experience inevitably exceed not only the abilities of the storyteller but also the very capacity of "story." Her murder may be the stuff of another story, but it is somehow more truly a tangential part of this story. On the other hand, in True Confessions, the obverse occurs: the attempt to solve the Black Dahlia-like killing drives the action forward in such a way that its solution is almost anti-climactic--that is, it has in the end become a minor issue among broader questions of ambition and corruption, faith and expediency, loyalty and honor.
John Gregory Dunne's choice of subjects and his manner of treating them places him between Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West in a territory where dream and nightmare cannot be separated out of actuality. It is the place where terrible things happen as if to cause the occurrence of or the exposure of even more terrible things. Eventually, one recognizes that the dream and the nightmare may be equally frail projections of the actuality. One can point to an obviously illustrative current event: what happened to Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman exceeds everything that has occurred in the aftermath of their murders and yet becomes all the more compelling because of what has subsequently occurred. In reacting to the tabloid exploitation of the tragedy, one is tempted to insist that the crime be viewed with a more balanced sense of its real proportions--as the murder, however horrible, of two people in a city where equally horrible killings are in fact commonplace. And, yet, everything that has subsequently occurred has actually clarified those proportions: for, whether or not O.J. Simpson committed the murders, the inevitable question of whether he might have committed them has made the case something elusively larger than the issues of celebrity, spousal abuse, race, and justice that have driven the coverage of it.