by John Gregory Dunne
Confronted with the chance of imminent death, most mortals might reflect on the loves and lives they stand to lose. John Gregory Dunne thinks of his next book. Told by his doctor that he is a “candidate for a catastrophic event”—namely, a heart attack—Dunne jump-starts into an autobiographical memoir, Harp. The title, derisive slang for Irish-Catholic, is a label the Irish-Catholic writer claims to find perversely satisfying: “I like the sound of the word—it is short, sharp and abusive.”
The high WASP plains he now inhabits—as a screenwriter and novelist (Dutch Shea, Jr., True Confessions) and the husband-collaborator of writer Joan Didion—haven’t totally converted Dunne. He confesses to a continuing aversion to his family’s ethnic nemesis, the Yank. Were he to stick to this theme, there might be good reading ahead. Instead, he flits between tedious personal history (not even his brother’s suicide and his niece’s murder liven up this self-involved, curmudgeonly recounting) and mean-spirited ruminations on his material and how he steals it.
Dunne, it turns out, is a tough guy to have a conversation with: One quip, one stupid aside, and you end up an anecdote in his next book. Even worse: Invite Dunne and his wife to dinner. Like dueling stenographers, they rush back to their individual journals to record the chance remark, the pithy incident—then race harder to beat each other into print. Shameful? Why, admits Dunne, he’ll even steal other writers’ stolen life histories!
Too bad he didn’t steal their medical records. Dunne’s own treatment makes for some of the dullest reading this side of the side-effects warnings on an aspirin package. As if that weren’t boring enough, in between office visits he journeys to Ireland to tug at his painfully ordinary roots.
“A writer’s life is his only real capital,” Dunne declares, “his alone to invest, and to imagine, and to reimagine.” If Harp truly reflects the state of his personal affairs, he should file for bankruptcy. (Simon and Schuster, $18.95)