I was saddened to hear of the death of writer John Gregory Dunne earlier this year, as I was a big fan of his memoir Monster, a galvanizing behind-the-scenes look at the vicious world of Hollywood screenwriting. It was a tough, smart and witty book, and one that will scare the bejesus out of anyone wishing to become a screenwriter. Thankfully, Dunne’s last book is another tough and absorbing work, the novel Nothing Lost.
A sequel of sorts to his novel Playland, Dunne’s swan song is about a vicious murder in the fictional state of South Midland (not, dear God, to be confused with North Midland). A black drifter in the South Midland town of Regent is murdered in a quease-inducing manner, inciting all of the good people of Regent to call for the heads of those responsible.
The ensuing arrests and trial embroil an eclectic mix of characters, including prosecutor J.J. McClure and advocacy lawyer Theresa Kean, rivals who both harbor dark family secrets. Other players include J.J.’s gung-ho congresswoman wife, Poppy, a teenaged supermodel named Carlyle, and the book’s narrator, Max Cline, a smart former prosecutor ousted from his job because of his homosexuality.
Dunne brilliantly draws vivid, complex characterizations of even somewhat minor characters, such as the ill-fated medical examiner Charley Buckles, to J.J.’s acid-tongued investigator Allie Vasquez (who is also a not-so-secret spy for Max) to whip-smart judge Ellen Tracy. Everyone is thrown together in a twisting and turning story that absorbs the reader for much of the book. However, it twists and turns a bit too much toward the end, truncating what turns out to be one of the book’s key relationships (sharing more would reveal too much), and rendering much of the finale a bit anticlimactic. But Dunne makes up for it all in his sad, devastating finale. The last images of his last book are appropriately poignant, as if he knew they might be the last he would write.
It’s not a perfect book, but it is a dignified end to a distinguished career.