If Dominick Dunne's posthumous novel, "Too Much Money," will get people talking about him, that's probably exactly what he would have wanted.
FOR THE RECORD:
Mary Astor." It should have said Brooke Astor. —
Dunne was something of an outsider who became a trusted chronicler of the lifestyles and trials of the privileged. He became a brand of his own -- white-haired, owl-eyed, patrician -- on cable television. Connecticut-born, Dunne was an early TV producer in New York who moved to L.A. to produce films. He had a few successes and enjoyed moving among elites, until he partied his way out of Hollywood and his marriage. He wound up mired in alcohol and more, divorced, broke and struggling in New York in 1982 when his daughter Dominique, a promising actress, was slain by her ex-boyfriend. In an almost unbelievable twist, after talk about his decision to attend the trial, a new career began: He became a professional court-watcher at the behest of Tina Brown, the new editor of Vanity Fair.
In a handful of novels, Augustus "Gus" Bailey appears as Dunne's alter ego, and his life had the kind of drama you might find in fiction. Like Dunne, Bailey writes for a glossy magazine. As Dunne's friendship with the children of heiress Sunny von Bülow gave him intimate access to her home, so did Bailey's with the children of the fictional Antonia von Rautbord. When Dunne was sued by Gary Condit for saying that the congressman knew more about the Chandra Levy case than he was letting on, Bailey was sued by the fictional Kyle Cramden over insinuations about the disappearance and death of Diandra Lomax -- and so on.
Exactly where the two diverge will be the focus of the buzz around this book. Whispers about Dunne's sexuality dogged him: The Advocate's obituary noted Dunne was "long rumored to be gay." Maybe people talked because he'd never remarried, he'd produced the gay-focused 1970 film "The Boys in the Band," told the stories of the gay men who circulated through New York society and was himself a "walker," accompanying wealthy divorcées and widows to public events.
In this book, Dunne's alter ego Bailey confronts the gossip.
" 'Probably true, whatever you've heard,' Gus added as casually as he could.
" 'Heard?' Peter inquired.
" 'Oh you know, that I'm deep within the closet. . . . Well, maybe I am . . . in the closet. So what. . . . I feel quite relieved having said it. I'm beyond 80, you know. Mustn't have any more secrets. Can't die with a secret, you know.' "
Is Bailey's coming out solely fiction, or is he meant to speak for the writer himself? Dunne's fiction is filled with real-life dopplegängers: In this book, Kit Jones is clearly Liz Smith, Christine Saunders is Barbara Walters, and Adele Harcourt, the Manhattan doyenne who lives past 100, is Mary Astor. He drops pseudonyms like bread crumbs. With all the nods to real people, it will be tempting to conclude that Dunne is revealing a secret about himself, that Gus' eleventh-hour confession is Dunne's own.
At its most interesting, "Too Much Money" deals with final legacies and death. Dunne has always trafficked in the comings and goings of New York society; in this book, that society dwells in the shadows of the grim reaper, from octogenarian parties to A-list funerals.
The plot moves forward, slowly, as arrivistes Ruby and Elias Renthal strategize a return to society pages after Elias' prison stint for fraud. Meanwhile, a few elderly society ladies move to maintain their beachheads of real estate and prestige, while gay companions smile handsomely and gossip. Along the way, Gus Bailey tries to ignore a cancer diagnosis while working on a book about the third-richest woman in the world, Perla Zacharias, who may or may not be sending Mossad agents to track him.
The writing lacks the wit that Dunne was known for. Instead, it reads like an episode of "Knot's Landing," repeating information for readers who might have not been paying enough attention between paragraphs, as if they were separated by commercial breaks. Characters get the same description each time they come up, no matter the context. Over and over, we read that Ruby has a suit with sable cuffs, that Perla's husband died in a fire -- not just any fire, but a fire at his villa in Biarritz. The repetition, like Homeric epithets, creates an array of uninvestigated, one-dimensional characters. Inevitably, the good people look fabulous, while the evil are plastic surgery disasters. The sentences can be excruciating, particularly Dunne's five-name, two-location specialty: " 'The Lelands have had to put the Southampton house up for sale,' said Dinkie Winthrop to Addison Kent at Matilda Clark's dinner for Odmolu Webb's birthday in the back room of Swifty's."
Belatedly heating up
What's most puzzling is that this used to mean something. Dunne has lost none of his adoration of the wealthy social elite of New York, but the rest of us have. Inherited names may still be boldface, but now they run beside the latest Disney teen sensations. A society pedigree means little when a geek in Seattle can become a billionaire philanthropist. Power no longer is as simple as a once-vaunted family line.
This sense of shift is absent from "Too Much Money," despite the fact that so many of its characters are at the end of their lives. Their world remains intact, and it's the worse for it. At best, the book reads like an anachronism; at worst, it's insular and boring.
When "Too Much Money" gets cooking in its final pages, it shows what Dunne could do when he heated up. It's juicy high-society soap opera, complete with conflict, redemption and a post-funeral bathroom showdown. It seems that Dunne, who succumbed to cancer during the final editing of the novel, saves his intensity -- and, perhaps his secrets -- for the end.
Kellogg is the lead blogger for Jacket Copy, The Times' book blog.