26 April 2018

Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season by John Gregory Dunne

I had been searching for this book for years, ever since I read the Joan Didion biography by Tracy Daugherty and he said John Gregory Dunne describes his first sexual encounter with Joan in his "semi-autobiographical / semi fiction" book Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season. Creepy right? I was never able to track it down, so I ended up ordering a used copy off of Amazon. To my surprise it showed up in almost perfect condition (a 1974 edition) and with a front cover showcasing a pair of boobs. Anyways, finally I've found it and I've read it, and here is my review!

To start, Dunne dedicates this book to Noel Paramental... his long-time "mentor," but also Joan's first serious boyfriend. I don't know if this is the most passive aggressive move I've seen in literature or if it is actually genuine. I think it's safe to say the three had a very complicated relationship. Either way, it was interesting to see.

It's hard to describe what style this book falls into. Even Dunne seems to have difficulty describing it as a "fiction which recalls a time both real and imagined."

[...] the Catholicism of my childhood remains the one salient fact of my life. It was an experience predicated on habit rather than on faith, a comforting habit, like a swim before breakfast or a drink before dinner, so that when I drifted away from the Church in the later years it was less a loss of faith than the erosion of a routine."
Essentially Dunne goes to Vegas to try and help his writer's block / get a break from his marriage, or in his words, he went because,

It had been a bad spring, it had been a bad winter, it had been a bad year." 

Dunne is also obsessed with his own death (and yes I suppose we all are) and suggests this is another reason he decides to go to Vegas. After a doctor tells him his heart is pretty much hanging on by a thread (another real life tidbit) he sees a billboard advertising for Vegas:

'Then what are you doing in Vegas for? The climate?' How does one explain a billboard that said, Visit Las Vegas Before Your Number's Up."

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne
He meets a few "persons of interest" and details his conversations with them. The book focuses on a prostitute, a detective, and a comedian. The entire book Dunne acknowledges how he isn't getting any work done, and that this project in Vegas isn't really working out. His wife describes him as "clinically detached."

Right off the bat I'll start by saying while some of this is definitely fictionalized, after reading as much as I possibly could about Joan, I do know what is for sure true. For example, Dunne LOVES hookers... I know from his memoir Harp that he lost his virginity to one, but also that he slept with A LOT of prostitutes while positioned in the army.

I also know that the first time Dunne and Didion slept together was after they spent time watching a woman in an apartment building across from Dunne's:

I would not watch her obsessively, but failed to define 'obsessively.' I was James Stewart in Rear Window, a Hitchcock hero and not a dirty old man. I was a voyeur and not a Peeping Tom (the one seemed less pathological and clinical than the other)."

Again, Dunne is a self-described "voyeur." He would ALWAYS search through people's medicine cabinets while at parties, and he would stop in random apartment complexes to look through people's mail. He is incredibly nosy, but I think these are things he loved to work into his books.

My favourite character he writes about is the prostitute. She is going to beauty school in the day and turning tricks on the Vegas strip at night. She is also a talented poet, and this was one of my favourite passages in the book:

Sometimes I find my life a maze, Of lonely nights and aspirin days. Longing for the golden cup, Terrified of waking up. Easy nights and twenty-one, A life that's over before it's begun."

This book was interesting because while he barely really talks about his relationship with the "fictional" wife, you still understand how uncomfortable things are in their marriage at this stage. It makes me sad because while I definitely idealize Dunne and Didion's marriage, I've had to face all the problems they've faced - and how often they've considered divorce. Apparently Dunne had lived in hotels for weeks in the same state to try and avoid arguments.

This is one of my favourite passages in the book because it is so clearly a conversation they could have had:

Jackie's got me a date with a nineteen-year-old tonight. She's supposed to suck me and fuck me. 'It's research,' she said. 'It's a type, the girl who's always available to fuck the comic's friend. You're missing the story if you don't meet her.'
'But I don't want to fuck her.' There was a long silence at the other end of the telephone. 
'Well, that can be part of the story, too,' she said."

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne at home working a piece
It's funny that the wife in this book describes the main character as "clinically detached" seeing as this is so fitting of Didion herself. And you can see, this is her seemingly unbothered in her husband sleeping with another woman.

I was a LITTLE disappointed with this book. I had really high hopes only because it was so explicitly semi-autobiographical. Whenever I read anything of Dunne's or Didion's I can see all the stuff they pulled from real life (because I know their entire library of work so well *humble brag*). So I will say that this book is far below my love of Dutch Shea, Jr. and HarpVegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season is also incredibly crude, as is most of Dunne's writing. So if you are uncomfortable with the verbs "sucking and fucking" then I would skip this one.

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