Writing is an aggressive act,” John Gregory Dunne declares the moment you venture into Crooning, giving you just enough time to recall your ambassador and mobilize military reserves. Brandishing the blunt instrument that is his prose style, Dunne has just one maneuver, the headlong charge, and he usually succeeds in overrunning something or someone. The essays, reviews, and aggressive acts collected in this volume, like his recent novels (Dutch Shea, Jr.; The Red White and Blue) and memoir (Harp), are full of high dudgeon and sometimes high reward. Dunne, allergic to conventional wisdom and received opinion, seethes with sour curiosity as well as resentment and can be counted on for an unsparing, unbiased sort of unfairness. He is an equal-opportunity bigot. Like fellow free-lance Irish misanthrope Jonathan Swift, he hates ”all nations, professions, and communities” and saves his love for individuals.
Not a lot of individuals qualify, of course. ”That fat and flatulent little bully” is Dunne’s casual allusion to the political columnist Robert Novak. He bestows on Arthur Schlesinger Jr. the title of ”Camelot’s resident groupie, a master of selective history who for a wink or a smile can justify any action, rationalize any obscenity,” distracting Dunne for a moment from paying similar compliments to the Kennedys. The left-wing columnist Alexander Cockburn makes an appearance as a ”salon Stalinist fancy man.” The right-wing columnist William F. Buckley Jr. is summed up as a ”self-infatuated” perpetual undergraduate composed entirely of ”thin veneer.” Tom Wolfe (whose work Dunne greatly admires) is served up as ”a male Edith Sitwell.” Other casualties include the critics James Wolcott and John Lahr, assorted Hollywood moguls, and the Italian city of Venice. A few friends — notably the blacklisted ex-Communist Dan James, who achieved late success by assuming the literary identity of a young Chicano writer — are left unscathed, even loved.
But where are the innuendos of yesteryear? The literary insult, a minor but ancient and highly polished art, has fallen on soft times, and critics who aren’t timidly evenhanded tend to be ham-handed. Dunne points out that the taunts heaved at him by Wolcott are no match for the many nely honed libels aimed at George Bernard Shaw, but Dunne’s own strenuous efforts lack finesse and humor. He isn’t polite enough to be memorably rude.
Why ”crooning”? It’s what Dunne thinks he would like to do and what, in private and off-key, he actually does when he hates the profession of writing (which is ”most of the time”). His work has something self-mortifying about it. He is drawn to the Santa Monica Court- house ”the way some people are drawn to church” because it offers ”a totally hermetic world” in which ”the most rancid view of human nature prevails, and I find it mesmerizing.” And contagious. Filled with a sense of rancid mission, he goes out into the world to pursue his thankless vocation, which is to overturn impressive things, the better to examine their foul and teeming undersides. In this book he takes hard, disturbing, and convincing looks at Kennedy’s Camelot, Israel’s hubris, the celebrity journalism spawned by Watergate, and the prettified Hollywood version of America inherited (he suggests) by Ronald Reagan and Ralph Lauren. Nasty work, but somebody has to do it. When Dunne does it, it is always fortissimo but only occasionally off-key. B