Like his fictional alter ego, journalist Gus Bailey, Dominick Dunne was the man who knew all the secrets and wasn't afraid to share them. Known to many people for his blistering articles in Vanity Fair, Dunne died last August. The majority of his work, both fiction and journalism, was based on trenchantly observed explorations of how the rich and famous manipulate the legal system to their advantage. His writing was psychologically penetrating, compulsively readable and, most importantly, permeated by a sense of righteous anger based on his personal experience of abuse, addiction and family tragedy. Published posthumously, his latest novel, Too Much Money, is no exception.
Like a latter-day Proust or 20th-century Trollope (who he maintained was his favorite writer), Dunne created minutely detailed portrayals of a society under a microscope. In Too Much Money, Dunne revives many of the characters first introduced in People Like Us (1988), namely the high-society journalist Gus Bailey. Other characters welcomed back are the nouveau-riche, mega-millionaire Renthals—including husband Elias, newly sprung from a prison term for insider trading—and Lil Altemus and Maisie Verdurin, two ladies-who-lunch adjusting to the changing social mores.
Like an Upper East Side Virgil, Bailey guides the reader through the complexities of the life of the very privileged few. Once again, we are privy to the goings-on in private clubs, exclusive restaurants and opulent private homes. But it’s not all cocktail parties and opening nights at the opera. Bailey has some serious problems. He’s been contracted to write a novel on the death of billionaire Konstantin Zacharias in a mysterious fire, but Zacharias’ fiery-tempered, social-climbing widow, Perla, is eager to stop Bailey’s research. In addition, Bailey is sued for slander by a powerful congressman whom he’s accused of being involved in the disappearance of a young Washington intern. To add to his troubles, Bailey’s health takes a turn for the worse.
Dunne has always drawn from his real-life experience, but without the lens that more time or reflection would have allowed, Too Much Money feels a bit hastily written and overly plotted. It also lacks the warmth of earlier work. But Dunne’s gimlet eye is ever-present, as is his ironic humor and ferocious sense of fairness. Dunne loved life, with all its attendant pain and complexity, and in this uneven but fiercely written novel, it shows to the end.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.