The Eye of the Beholder

The novelist and journalist John Gregory Dunne once described himself as “one of life’s neutrals, a human Switzerland,” but he sure got over it. This collection of his essays, magazine pieces and book reviews is full of sharp, tough prose-he is a wonderful writer, wry and educated-that is funny, mordant, acerbic and depressed. He’s on the side of the good guys, only he doesn’t find a lot of them, and he’s on the side of the truth, which is also pretty hard to find. Resisting intellectual currents to get at what at least seems to be true (a tough piece on Chappaquiddick becomes a tough piece on John Kennedy; he says of the work of a Camelot apologist, “This is not history; I would call it perjury”), he journeys to Israel before the Intifada, to Hollywood during the McCarthy era, to all the gin joints in Chinatown.

Does he have something to say? Yes, that life is hard, and full of shadows and deceit. He writes of a friend as having “the eyes of someone who has seen too much, too many violations of the human contract,” but those are also his eyes, and the fun in this collection is seeing them at work. He is drawn to morgues, courthouses and the scene of the crime “the way some people are drawn to church” (lots of Catholic imagery here; a friend has the look of “a Graham Greene priest; he had heard too much in confession”) and finds there the usual assortment of transgressors. “Whenever I meet a cop, I am struck by a certain element of performance in his persona.” He is a reporter who knows whom to listen to. A defense attorney tells Dunne about his favorite kind of defendant: “I like the guy who says, `Sure, I was in the store . . . but there was no way that bastard could’ve recognized me with my mask on. It was a Batman mask. Who’d she think I was, Bruce Wayne? And I didn’t have no shotgun. It was a twenty-two. If she says she can recognize me, she’s blowing smoke up your {obscenity}.’“ The attorney smiles. “That is an easy client to defend.” Another lawyer says of the case backlog in Santa Monica, “The only cases that go to trial are the unimportant crimes of important people and the important crimes of unimportant people.” That’s the most succinct definition of modern urban criminal justice I’ve ever heard.

There is an intellectual wildness to some of Dunne’s observations. “My Lai was the last major American victory, body-count-wise,” he says in an essay on the Mideast. Newt Gingrich is “of course, the moral equivalent of a bowel movement.” The columnist Robert Novak is “that fat and flatulant little bully” (I myself prefer Mark Shields’ explanation that Novak is simply living proof that Calvin Coolidge and Ma Barker were more than just good friends).

Dunne has a soulful edge-his Catholicism has not left him, or he has not left it-but he’s no romantic, he’s not sentimental, his heart doesn’t soar. One senses he faced a tough decision when leaving college: Join the priesthood, or run the Westies? He became, as some gifted ambivalents do, a writer, armed with Eyes of a Killer Nun. In a review of William F. Buckley Jr.’s memoir, Overdrive, he is admiring and impatient: “And yet at stage center, he is really not very giving of himself, except for that sly self-deprecation that comes so easily to the self-infatuated.” The writer Alexander Cockburn is “the salon Stalinist fancy man.” Does Tommy Lasorda swear a lot? “To say Lasorda has a mouth like a sewer is to pin a bad rap on the department of sanitation.”

But writers who search for what is true, and who try not to be guided by politics in what they see, deserve admiration. It occurs to Dunne, a former screenwriter himself, and author of a sympathetic piece on a writer who had been a figure in the “witch hunts,” that “had there not been a blacklist, all the Hollywood Communist screenwriters, penitent and unpenitent, would have languished in the well-paid obscurity they essentially deserved.” The most memorable and moving part of the book is his trip to Israel in the days before the Intifada. He is drawn to spies, hoping to get a clear read on things from those who have no investment in illusion. No one satisfactorily answers his questions, not even “V,” a young American Jew, an editor distrusted by all and reliably used as a conduit by all sides. Dunne asks him “if it was not corrupting for the whole state of Israel to have this raj in an area where the Jews were outnumbered nearly fourteen to one by the Palestinians.” V shrugs: That’s the Peace Now line. His question neither answered nor addressed, Dunne spends a sleepless night reading the Jewish quarterly Tikkun and thinking that being in Jerusalem, with its constant assault of ideas, is like “being an eyewitness to a bad marriage and the poisonous bickering therein.”

When he writes about writing, world weary becomes, perhaps by accident, invigorating. He is still excited by his trade, about which he is not in the least romantic, and has good simple advice: blocked? gone dry? confused by our own plot, confused by why we wanted to be a novelist in the first place? Tough it out. “What civilians do not understand-and to a writer anyone not a writer is a civilian-is that writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.” Go to the office every day, break the block by showing up. “The professional guts a book through this period, in full knowledge that what he is doing is not very good. Not to work is to exhibit a failure of nerve, and a failure of nerve is the best definition I know for writer’s block.”

It has been asked of collections such as this: Why should anyone want to buy old opinions on old topics, and isn’t this taking literary recycling too far? And these are valid questions, but it seems to me that it is always interesting to see a review that shows you how a writer like Tom Wolfe was viewed by his contemporaries in the pre-Bonfire days; it’s interesting to see a meditation on Renata Adler’s impressive work flicking the lid off the New Grub Street revealed in the Ariel Sharon-Time case and the Westmoreland CBS case. Years later such pieces can tell you things about the age, the way reading a William Manchester essay on his short war with the Kennedys over Death of a President tells you about the hothouse angst of the mid-’60s. It’s old news but its still news. The real question is what do you want to spend for old news, and the answer is maybe you want to buy the paperback version and keep it in a small pine bookcase from college, picking it up every few years and getting reminded.