Dunne, posthumously, in love with a mind

May 16, 2004|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,Special to the Sun

Nothing Lost, by John Gregory Dunne. Knopf. 352 pages. $24.95.

Two thirds of the way through John Gregory Dunne's astonishingly wicked and deliriously well-paced new, and final, novel, Nothing Lost, the main narrator, the Midwestern prosecutor-turned-defense-attorney Max Cline, tells his new co-counsel, the chic, media-savvy Teresa Kean, that Carlyle, the teen-age supermodel half-sister of the young alleged murderer they are defending, has just arrived in town to cause a massive paparazzi meltdown.

Cline and Kean are apart, but they are watching television coverage simultaneously. "Just the usual Middle America crap," Max says, "A rural community asks why. Brutal murder. Beloved victim. National attention. The president of the United States ... and a wonderful last shot for our side. Carlyle and her happy crew leaving the airport in three stretch limos. White, ... with two SUVs to carry their luggage."

Dunne, like a less cartoonish Tom Wolfe, stakes out the territory of familiar cable-news outrage, and transforms it into a riveting narrative. He peoples it with devastatingly well-realized takes on recognizable types such as "Lorna Dun, ... the anchor of a nightly half hour ... called Fixed Bayonets. ... She was blond, she was always called beautiful by men, never women, she wore vinyl miniskirts, had a voice that would cut metal, and would say anything, especially if it was hurtful, innocence or irrelevance no defense."

This novel, unlike so many "well-written" novels, is genuinely well-plotted, full of surprises, without skimping on emotional and metaphorical resonance. And Dunne's craft is the most generous sort: He seems to have delighted in editing his chapters and dialogue so that absolutely never, not once, do you want to skip ahead, to push past exposition, back-story, pointless scene-setting.

Dunne's life experiences in media capitals and at far-flung crime scenes lend an inimitable verisimilitude to his dialogue. As you read line after scalding line -- in American vernacular, but with a farceur's attention to nuance -- you will wish that Dunne were available to script your workplace battles, your television appearances, your journal entries, your letters to the editor. During Teresa Kean's first meeting with the taunting, self-absorbed, potty-mouthed super-model Carlyle, Dunne crafts a virtuoso pornographic repartee that is simultaneously hilarious and blood-chilling -- and unprintable in a newspaper.

But what is revealed most poignantly in Nothing Lost is Dunne's sweeter side. For instance, in his narrator's ruminations on Teresa Kean, you sense that Dunne is also writing, in part, about his real-life wife, the iconic writer Joan Didion. He writes: "Teresa's journal was full of odd, quirky items, ... entries that seemed on superficial first reading to reveal only some ill humor, ... but as I read deeper into the journal and as my translation became more fluent, these random jottings would usually end up making a point, illuminating something or someone, and the someone was often herself. It was here that doubt would make an occasional appearance and the chilly conviction usually on display would melt."

This is a man falling in love with a woman's mind, with the way a woman thinks. Max Cline and Teresa Kean are colleagues, not husband and wife, but Dunne invests their scenes with full-bodied, rigorous love. John Gregory Dunne died in December 2003, at home with his wife.

Ben Neihart is the author of Hey, Joe, Burning Girl and Rough Amusements. His work has appeared in Travel & Leisure and The New Yorker.

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