Misfortune, the toll of time, and our own sin and folly provide the home school in which we may learn about ourselves. As a literary genre, confessions are defined by St. Augustine’s account of his long road to conversion. Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain had a similar impact when it appeared more than half a century ago. Of late, we seem to have been swamped by tell-all books that are very hard to categorize—except to say that they certainly don’t read like Augustine or Merton.
From time to time I carry home an armful of remaindered books from Barnes & Noble, chosen as much for their slashed price as their contents. By and large, these are books I would never otherwise buy although I have been waiting for some of them to show up at deep discount. Among the books I recently carted home was Dominick Dunne’s The Way We Lived Then, Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper (Crown, 1999). It is a coffee-table book, as much photographs as text, and it is an autobiography of sorts. It reminds me of nothing so much as a British television series of a few years ago called, if I remember correctly, Pennies from Heaven, which contrasted the world suggested by the lyrics of popular songs with the grubby existence of a man who sold such songs. There was a certain poignancy in learning that life really isn’t a bowl of cherries, that not every cloud has a silver lining, and that protestations of undying love crooned in baritone often emerge from the mouths of womanizers.
Dunne, early and late, aspired to the tinsel world of entertainment as depicted in press releases, movie fan magazines, and profiles on Biography. Here is little Dominick at nine years old: “I had always been star struck, one of those kids who preferred movie star magazines to baseball cards. I believed everything I read in them.” Raised as a Catholic, married in the Church, and father of three, Dunne got his start in television in New York and then moved to California, the equivalent for him of the promised land. The breathless excitement with which he tells us of his acquaintance with celebrities of stage and screen is initially touching in its naiveté. Whatever defects he notices in these larger-than-life personae are accepted as ingredients of fame. Dunne’s apotheosis is reached when he throws parties to which the stars come! And he is busy all the while snapping the pictures that fill this book. His story is his slow declension into degradation—he ends by being shunned by those he had cultivated, divorced, on drugs, suicidal, a mess. Rock bottom. What retrospective sense does Dunne make of his life as he puts it before us, in words and pictures? It is a prelude for a comeback.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, but then he would have brought a residual Catholic conscience to reflections on such a life as this. Dunne has only the categories of glitz through which to see himself and his life. Sure he was down and out, but he came back, by God. He wrote some successful novels and then he covered the O. J. trial and became a sort of celebrity. This is presented as redemption. This may not be the saddest story I have ever heard, but listen to this final paragraph:
My daughter Dominique was murdered in 1982 by a former boyfriend named John Sweeney, who served only two and a half years in prison for his crime. Dominique’s death was a cataclysmic event that changed the lives of all of us forever. Lenny [his divorced wife] died in 1997. Never was there a more gallant lady than Lenny Dunne. Alex [a son] lives in a cabin in Northern California, teaches school and is writing his first novel. Griffin [another son] lives in New York, has been an actor and film producer, and is now a film director, who has had an Academy Award nomination. I am deeply proud of my sons and love them dearly….
After such narratives others have turned to God, entered monasteries, come to know themselves and repent. There is none of that here. Tragic events are wasted on most of us, of course, and Dunne’s account of his rise and fall is a cautionary tale that comes uncomfortably close to home. It is not easy to be shallow all the way down, to ignore the opportunities that life’s reversals offer, but most of us manage it. Dunne has written a veritable handbook of moral opacity whose subtext is a Baudelarian addressing of the reader, Mon semblable, mon frere. On terms he seems to have forgotten, he engages the reader’s sympathy. One ends by breathing an Ave for Dominick Dunne.