Dominick Dunne: Too Much Money
There’s a wit and an effortlessness that make this book delightful in small doses.
Some things we read or watch to better ourselves. You know what these are. Others we consume in order to visit imaginative realms beyond the normal purview: Jersey Shore, Avatar, The Lost Symbol or Dominick Dunne’s new (and posthumous) novel Too Much Money.
As in Dunne’s previous novels People Like Us and Another City Not My Own, Gus Bailey is the author’s stand-in, a writer for Park Avenue magazine who is undergoing a strenuous lawsuit for slander committed against politician Kyle Cramden. In part to cover the legal bills he’s racked up, Bailey has signed a seven-figure deal to write a damning novel, titled “Infamous Lady”, about one Perla Zacharias suspected to be involved in her rich husband’s mysterious death. Meanwhile, disgraced businessman Elias Renthal is biding his time at a prison in Las Vegas waiting to wriggle back into the caste that ejected him as soon as his sentence (for financial malfeasance) is up. Too Much Money covers the return of the Renthals to society and Gus’s attempts to get the real facts of the case down for his novel. The book’s suspense rides dually on whether the Renthals will recapture the respect of their peers and whether Gus will write his book or not. As suspense goes, it is not gripping. But suspense is not Dunne’s game.
A roman à clef refers to a novel wherein nominally fictitious characters provide thinly-veiled accounts of real people; in French the phrase translates into “novel with a key”. In keeping with the genre, “Too Much Money” offers a disguised account of Dunne’s own legal tribulations relating to the Gary Condit/Chandra Levy case, as well as stand-ins for Brooke Astor (“Adele Harcourt”) Larry King (“Harry Sovereign”) Si Newhouse (“Hy Vietor”) and others.
Now. There are two ways to read a roman à clef. One is to comb it, as intended, for inside jokes and hidden truths. The other is to read it as a novel in its own right, with a language and a narrative not contingent for its pleasures on gossip. A successful roman à clef will satisfy on both accounts, and in an era free of discretion, it is more important than ever that it please the latter type of reader. Roman à clef doesn’t make quite as much sense as a form now that we have Gawker and Perez Hilton to provide us with the real names and humiliations of anyone involved in a scandal. A novel written in the whispering old roman à clef genre is hard-pressed to be salacious instead of quaint.
Too Much Money fits in somewhere between the two, as Dunne probably intended. As with Wharton novels it helps to keep a running list of the characters (with their relationships delineated) on whatever you’re using as a bookmark. There are characters named Bratsie Bleeker, Binkie Bosworth and Chiquita Chatfield. There are twenty-eight room apartments on Fifth Avenue. Characters say things like “I love giving orders to the help” and “Better nouveau than never” and “Winkie Williams told me the most hilarious story about the Duchess of Windsor being a hermaphrodite.” There are thousand-dollar orchids and bedrooms lacquered in seventeen coats of persimmon paint. It’s a novel packed with details—tangerine roses, Turnbull & Asser striped ties, Spode china—but adding up to something less satisfying than Bonfire of the Vanities or The Devil Wears Prada, both of which had their share of proper nouns. Dunne doesn’t have to give us meaty conclusions, just astute observations and a couple of laughs. Too Much Money is slightly shy of both.
Still, there’s a wit and an effortlessness that make the book delightful in small doses. Dunne is a master of dense social detail and outrageousness, and he’s at his best when he combines the two––as when introducing readers to the concept of the “walker”, an attractive young gay man employed as a companion to partnerless rich women at balls and dinners, or revealing that certain Manhattan mortuaries are more prestigious than others. With its episodic structure and New York-iness and likable if forgettable characters, Too Much Money reminded me most, and weirdly, of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children; both are expertly-constructed and entertaining books that fade from memory as soon as the last page is turned. I’m not convinced, in the end, that this is a fault. It might just be a sign that a book’s aims and achievements are perfectly aligned. ?