Savagery in South Midland
Upon John Gregory Dunne’s death of a heart attack in December 2003, the many obituaries and eulogies for this famous man of letters stressed the deft touch Dunne brought as a writer to those subjects he knew well: the Irish-American experience, the chaotic and morally bankrupt culture of Hollywood, the Catholic Church and criminal law. Equally important to his success as a writer, however, was Dunne’s ability to play the reporter, the hardboiled gumshoe who compensates for a lack of knowledge or experience about a subject with an awe-inspiring ability to spy out telling details and crucial developments. In his final novel, Nothing Lost, Dunne turns from more familiar turf to immerse himself and his readers in a world far from Santa Monica courthouses or Upper East Side apartments: the American Midwest.
Though Dunne was in many ways the epitome of the bicoastal writer, steeped in the cultures and lifestyles of Los Angeles and New York, his 1997 piece for the New Yorker on the murder of Brandon Teena in Nebraska was clearly the inspiration for Nothing Lost. More generally, the book is a savage satire on modern American media culture and the petty desperadoes who serve as both subject and object of that culture’s around-the-clock coverage. No one is spared, and none are worthy of being spared, an exhaustive investigation into the seamier side of their daily lives.
Set in the mythical state of South Midland, the story revolves around the gruesome murder of a local drifter named Edgar Parlance, found shot through the skull with his tongue ripped out, the letter P carved on his chest and strips of skin peeled from his body with a pair of pliers. The viciousness of the crime, combined with the victim’s African-American heritage in comfortably bland South Midland, immediately results in a national media circus. The supposed perpetrators are caught because of their telltale bumper sticker, “f— the phone company,” and organized, televised madness ensues.
Within 30 pages the reader is introduced to an astounding cast of characters, ranging from an Ann Coulter-like Republican congresswoman to a gay, Jewish law school professor to a 17-year-old supermodel to a murderously violent nose tackle for a nationally ranked college football team. One would need a visual aid to keep all the personalities straight, which was surely Dunne’s aim—to create verbally what the reader is accustomed to seeing visually: the courtroom chart showing “who’s who.”
Plot twists and new characters emerge throughout, and Dunne’s characterizations overshadow the action itself. As in a real trial, the Parlance case involves endless speculation about every precious little detail or development. Thus the fictional media in the novel and the real reader are left to pore over the details of the many colorful personages involved, never noticing that almost nothing has actually happened. Further, everyone is subject to random events that radically alter their lives and their perspectives. As the narrator notes, the story addresses “the way the rich seam of chance winds its inevitable labyrinthine way under the rough terrain of the everyday.”
Dunne allows the reader no comfort zone with these characters; almost to a person they are unlikable and unsympathetic. Most are painfully self-absorbed, and all are possessed of dark pasts that haunt their present. The hapless, cuckolded prosecutor drowned his own brother as a child. The aw-shucks drifter whom everyone loved for his simplicity once ran a vicious prison sex ring. The star football player uses his fame as a cover for sociopathic deviance. Even the character with the most integrity, the defense attorney Teresa Kean, egregiously compromises the ethics of her profession for a few rolls in the hay with the prosecutor who is seeking to send her client to the electric chair. Dunne’s famously scabrous characterizations have always been a hallmark of his novels, and these misanthropes are no exception.
As a result, the reader may struggle to find a point of entry into the novel. There is no consistent narrative voice, no real protagonist, no real villains. Even the denouement of the main courtroom narrative occurs off-screen, so to speak, revealed startlingly early and pieced together through the speculation of absent characters. Like the hordes of reporters and television crews that descend upon South Midland to cover the trial, Dunne dares the reader to find meaning only in the salacious details, the nighttime peccadilloes, the minor character flaws that are blown into thematic emblems. That the author spent many hours covering the O. J. Simpson trial could be easily deduced without knowing his history, so sharp is the satire of modern American news entertainment. There is, Dunne’s characters suggest, a little Kato Kaelin in all of us.
An interesting side note is how closely this treatment approximates a “true-crime” novel of the sort that has flourished in recent years, that curious literary phenomenon that inevitably boasts of having been “ripped from the headlines.” This novel, truth be told, reads a little more Dominick Dunne than it does John Gregory.
Another curious element in the novel is the almost total absence of religion and faith from the lives of the characters, a surprising lacuna when one considers Nothing Lost within Dunne’s larger literary corpus. Though his characters have rarely been run-of-the-mill believers, Dunne’s protagonists have inevitably come to terms at some point with their religious identity or personal relationship with the divine. Even in his autobiographical works, like Vegas, Dunne himself went spelunking with gusto into the darker corners and unexplored depths of his own Catholicism and his relationship to the faith of his forebears. The characters of Nothing Lost have none of this desire, and religion enters the plot as a negative delimiter: we learn only that the people of South Midland don’t like Jews and aren’t too crazy about Catholics either.
But the religion of these people is power, and their sacrament ambition. Everyone will barter what he or she has in order to get somewhere else, be that the governor’s mansion, a nicer prison to die in or even just an office down in Capital City. Unsurprisingly, Dunne gleefully has them all fail. For the motley inhabitants of South Midland, there is inevitably much more than nothing lost; not a single character sees much in the way of gain.
As the final word in an accomplished literary career, Nothing Lost comes up slightly lacking. It is neither as polished as Dunne’s masterpieces, like True Confessions, nor as darkly funny as his satirical works on Hollywood culture. But as a fantastical journey into a funhouse version of America, where the “rich seam of chance” makes the mirrors all the more distorting, it is a rewarding and occasionally disturbing piece of entertainment.