Hollywood Babylon

Hollywood Babylon

Hollywood Babylon

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 3 1997 3:30 AM

Hollywood Babylon

Dominick Dunne, Gary Indiana, and the whole shebang.

Another City, Not My Own: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir
By Dominick Dunne
Crown; 384 pages; $25

Resentment: A Comedy
By Gary Indiana
Doubleday; 320 pages; $22.95

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Dominick Dunne is a ridiculous man, but in an interesting way. He is not, in the conventional sense, a good writer. His prose lacks even the hasty, spasmodic felicities to which we are resigned in the age of word processing. Here is a sentence from the second page of his O.J. Simpson novel, Another City, Not My Own: "That book [Dunne's own Season in Purgatory ], the miniseries of which he was watching, had brought Gus Bailey and the unsolved murder in Greenwich, Connecticut, which, to avoid a libel suit, he had renamed Scarborough Hill, a great deal of notoriety at the time of its publication, resulting in the reopening of the murder case by the police." Have we lost you? In this sentence, "its" cries out for its parental noun like a little duckling left on the wrong side of the road. "That book" is the referent, but other nouns rush to and fro like big, scary buses. (Miniseries, murder, Greenwich, libel suit, Scarborough Hill, notoriety.) Almost magisterial, almost artistic, is the way this sentence begins to go haywire with the words "the miniseries of which"--and yet not.

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Dunne can be ridiculed not merely for his aimless, dribbling style. What he calls a novel is hardly deserving of the name. Another City, Not My Own reads like a conflation of the author's first-person columns for Vanity Fair, the sole difference being the substitution of "Gus Bailey" for "I" throughout, as if by universal search-and-replace. Gus Bailey goes to the courtroom and watches the trial everyone already knows by heart. Then he goes to Hollywood parties and talks up each day's events with an air of tragic foreknowledge. That's it. The tone is uneven: Dunne jerks from moralistic pronouncements on O.J.'s guilt to smarmy name-dropping with the ease of an evangelical hack. The litany of show-business and upper-crust names in the book is staggering. On Pages 218 through 221, we find the following: Army Archerd, Kate Capshaw, Uma Thurman, Carrie Fisher, Roddy McDowall, Elizabeth Taylor, Matt Crowley, Nazimova, Natalie Wood, James Clavell, Sue Mengers, Gore Vidal, Jack Nicholson, Johnny Mathis, Nancy Reagan, Marje Everett, Merv Griffin, Princess Diana, Prince Charles, John Travolta, Suzanne Childs, Ray Stark, Betsy Bloomingdale, and Alan Greisman ("who used to be married to Sally Field"). I've omitted names of people directly connected with the case--Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, Judge Ito--although Dunne has a way of making their names sound dropped as well.

So why is one inclined to forgive this book's faults? Dunne is nothing if not charming. The flair for gossip that got him into thousands of dinner parties also wears down the resistance of the reader. He is seductively forthright about the failures in his life, about the fiasco of his career and marriage in the Hollywood of the 1960s, and he is aware of the conditional, codependent quality of his fame. He knows that his A-list aura at the time of the O.J. trial owed everything to O.J. himself. He admits to being a "terrible name-dropper." (Rather like O.J. admitting that he had his problems with Nicole.) The act has more than a bit of camp about it--America attends to the stern judgments of a male socialite. One has to smile at the role played in this book by Andrew Cunanan, whose scenes are the only ones here that seem to spring from Dunne's imagination. Cunanan shows up at a Hollywood dinner party hosted by Ray Stark and populated by Kirk Douglas, David Geffen, and Marcia Clark. Gus Bailey notices Cunanan right away, and asks Stark's daughter, "Who's the Latino staring at your father's Monet?"

At the end of the book, Gus and Cunanan meet again, and Gus dies. It's a loopy little fantasy, belonging in the same genre as Dunne's classically overworked meditations on the Menendez case in Vanity Fair. (For example: "If Jose did stick needles and tacks into his son's thighs and buttocks, didn't Erik bleed? Didn't Erik have scabs on his rear and thighs? I tried sticking a thumbtack into my buttocks and I bled.")

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I got a kick out of Another City, Not My Own. I devoured it in the proverbial single sitting. But the book is ultimately compromised and rendered stupid by the obliviousness of the author. Dunne had the best seat at one of the great comic cultural cataclysms of recent years, and he produced a weak, chatty book rather than a good, vicious one. He relishes a few absurdities as they glide past--the accidental meeting of Nancy Reagan and Heidi Fleiss in a hotel lobby, or the sight of African-American servants wincing in the background as beautiful white people call O.J. the scum of the earth. He writes this nifty dialogue for Anne Douglas (Kirk's wife) and Barbara Sinatra: " 'I suppose everyone has said the N word at some time or other,' said Anne Douglas. 'Frank said it this morning,' said Barbara Sinatra." Dunne's own rage at the black man, however, goes unexamined. Ultimately, his frothing is indistinguishable from the others'. That Dunne's own daughter was killed by a man who later went free is not a sufficient distinction--victimhood does not confer rectitude.

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In his own life and in the larger spectacle, Dunne flubs the bigger ironic notes. Take this exemplary passage from a Vanity Fair piece: "Sometimes you have to separate yourself from the trial and go back to real life. I left court 15 minutes early on July 11 so that I could get to Eva Gabor's funeral on time." Does Dunne mean to make himself ridiculous, or is his sense of "real life" so far gone? You're never sure. I'm afraid that regular attendance at the funerals of Gabors is this man's idea of keeping it real.

So, Another City is a borderline case. It is a shoddy, daffy piece of work, but it provides four or five fine vignettes of Hollywood bedlam in the 1990s. Fortunately, there is another novel that renders Dunne's quite superfluous: Gary Indiana's Resentment, published earlier this year by Doubleday. It is, for the most part, a novelization of the Menendez case, but the O.J. nonsense shadows it, and the whole incompetent O.J. prosecution team seems to have been flown in for a last-ditch battle with the forces of billable evil. Indiana has composed not just an autopsy of Los Angeles trial spectacles but also a satire-before-the-fact of Dunne's novel--possibly the first such pre-emptive strike in literary history. Resentment is narrated, like Another City, by a grumpy writer who lives at the Chateau Marmont hotel; at the same time, Dunne himself appears as a character, as a columnist-novelist named Fawbus Kennedy who is variously called "the kind of nothing this culture has been moving toward for decades," a "third-rate middlebrow Depends ad," and a "pompous mediocrity of a type unprecedented and decidedly unwelcome in this kind of grave proceeding." The diatribe goes on and on and on, and it's funny precisely because it won't let up. As Dunne makes nice with the truly rich and famous, compliments the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Nancy Reagan and Steven Spielberg, Indiana holds nothing back, burns all bridges, settles scores with those who have merely irritated him from afar.

Indiana, an on-and-off novelist-playwright and a longtime writer for the Village Voice, has accomplished more than the obliteration of Dominick Dunne. Resentment also sends up urban gay novels and unravels the tangle of reality and fantasy surrounding child abuse. But it's the precision of his take on high-minded gutter journalism that makes Resentment the one post-O.J. book likely to survive the remainderer's abattoir. Indiana manages simultaneously to reproduce and cut to pieces the bad faith and false consciousness surrounding these trials. He serves up in full the swiftly rotting texture of,, the way every observer is drawn into the general inanity and loses face in the act of. (Click on the underlined phrases for samples of Indiana's vicious analysis.)

Dominick Dunne, in his book, tries to find the meaning of events in relation to his own life and can end only with a scene of queasily erotic murder-suicide. Indiana finishes with a general shudder, a random Los Angeles earthquake, a "shallow-focus event unaccompanied by volcanic activity." My God, someone has finally summed up the whole shebang.