Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Did you work upon the railroad, did you rid the streets of crime?

Wow, I don't know much about his novels, but John Gregory Dunne could write a hell of a memoir. Harp, a mediation on how writers use their lives for their art, is brief but beautifully written. His subjects are writing, family and death, and they are often intertwined.

The title of the book is a reference to an anti-Irish slur and much of the book is about growing up Irish and how the culture shaped Dunne into who he became. While the Irish element is central to his character, we also see how living and working in Hollywood, life in the Army ( and a return to the base and a red light district some decades later) and the threat of an early death by heart attack affect the writer.

As readers of Joan Didion's the Year of Magical Thinking know, Dunne did in fact die of a heart attack, although it was nearly 20 years after he learned of his likely killer. The writing in heart chapters, where Dunne faces mortality were surely powerful when written (in the late 80s) but they take on an even greater power when read today.

Dunne's writing is so crisp and revealing, that I suspect if he chose to write about a visit to Denny's, it would be fascinating. Taking his powerful writing with such heartfelt stories makes this a must read book.


Citizen Reader said...

I can't read either JGD's or Joan Didion's novels, but I LOVE their nonfiction. Can't imagine being in that household, between two such mammoth talents. "Harp" surprised me with how much I loved it; I'd also suggest picking up The Complete Nonfiction Writings of JGD (or something like that), with a foreword by his pal Calvin Trillin. What a writer.

Tripp said...

I will look for the Writings volume, or whatever it is called.

It's funny but of all my reader friends I can't think of anyone who is a fan of Dunne or Didion's fiction.

Citizen Reader said...

You know,
after all my years in libraries, I never saw ANYONE check out novels by Dunne or Didion (except me), and ditto, none of my readerly friends have read them either. Interesting point. I do think both of their fiction styles/topics were more dated, or just more of their era, but their nonfiction really stands out as being more timeless.

I wonder if they thought of themselves more as fiction writers or NF writers? I always respected that they worked together on screenplays to pay the bills too, although they seemed to refer to that more as hack work.

Oh, and the book is "Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of JGD."

Tripp said...

back in the time of their writing, were they considered literary or more popular? I realize these are not precise distinctions, but for the most part, people fall into one or the other. Which is hardly a novel statement.

Good question on what they considered themselves. I bet you are right on the screenplays, but I wonder if the novels made much money?