The rich are different from you and me. They sell more books. Dominick Dunne’s new chronicle of well-heeled heels comes on the heels of People Like Us, his best-selling, dirt-dishing novel, which revealed that the New York rich have nasty secrets and expensive furniture. An Inconvenient Woman — which couldn’t be better titled, given the recent prominence in the tabloids of rich men and inconvenient women — proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the L.A. rich have nasty secrets too. And expensive furniture.
This book isn’t written; it’s whispered. The whole convoluted, scandal-greased, exposed-backsides-of-the-rich-and-famous story is told in a confiding, breathless undertone. As it deserves to be. A gossipy tale like this should be told as if by a well-dressed, worldly gentleman who knows everything and everyone and who happens to be sitting in the next seat on a long flight from L.A. Dunne does a good job of making his make-believe gossip believable, even riveting, in spite of some wooden dialogue, fiberboard characters, and the constant adjustment of the plot by the long, lazy arm of coincidence. But then, is it all make-believe? Are there any thinly veiled real heels here? If your experience with drunken socialites who claim to have slept with JFK, scheming gay gossip columnists, cocaine-dependent Hollywood producers, and tennis-playing Hollywood hookers is as pathetically limited as my own, you are meant to wonder.
Everyone in this book has a skeleton in the closet, including the skeletons. Jules Mendelson, the massive, formidable billionaire and confidant of presidents, has that unpleasant business about a girl who fell — or was she pushed?-off the balcony of his Chicago hotel room in 1953. He haa a mistress- the naive, extravagant, red-haired ex-waitress Flo March-and an obsession with the advanced course in erotic transports that she offers every afternoon. He has an unraveling life with an elegant wife, Pauline, one of the celebrated old-money WASP McAdoo sisters, who has her own scandal. Her son, Kippie (by a previous big-mistake marriage), has been expelled from several exclusive schools and seems headed for the major leagues of trouble, now that he has gotten entangled with gangster Arnie Zwillman. Jules and Pauline have Clouds, a mountaintop mansion overlooking L.A., with Monets and a $45 million van Gogh, servants and guard dogs, and exclusive parties (no movie people need apply) featuring members of the Social Register, ambassadors, and an unnamed amiable, dim ex-President. ”Her parties at Clouds were famous, and rightly so.” And wrongly so, when, after one of them, a distinguished guest with a secret gay life is murdered in his home. Following some mysterious high-level meddling, however, the papers and the police insist on calling it a suicide.
Into the stew steps handsome, intrepid Philip Quennell, a 30-year-old New York author of a book on a leveraged buyout, who decides to leverage himself to L.A. to work on an anti-drug film for a drug-addicted producer. As he is drawn into the thickening plot by his attendance at the infamous party, he turns into an amateur detective — not as witty as Philip Marlowe, perhaps; a bit of a pill, perhaps; with his own guilty secret, perhaps; but playing the role of one honest man in the nest of vipers.
The plot is kept lurching and the pot boiling — kinky sex, sudden death, the seamy underside to every glittering thing. It’s almost enough — but not quite — to conceal the flaws. Redundancies redound: Bits of plot information are laboriously repeated every few pages to accommodate inattentive speed-readers. The writing is humdrum. Dunne thinks that ”disinterested” means ”uninterested.” The book is set in L.A., but the reader can’t see anything, not because of the mog but because Dunne doesn’t evoke anything; his descriptive passages amount to inventories of furniture, paintings, jewels, Parisian frocks.
But let me climb off my literary high horse. There, that’s better. Considered as unpretentious entertainment, the novel, with its baroque plot and telltale details, is good unclean fun. And then there are the teasing roman a clef possibilities. They include a dead novelist with a missing manuscript whose resemblance to Truman Capote and Answered Prayers is strictly intentional. There’s a glimpse of an Italian-American crooner with mob ties. There’s even an obnoxious magazine book critic called Hortense Madden, ”heaping her contempt on commercial success.” She is described as ”much-feared” — exactly the phrase I would have chosen for myself.
On the other hand, she has protruding teeth, thick glasses, a rancorous personality, and a secret career as an inept nightclub chanteuse. There is, of course, no such book critic in real life. Or is there? You are meant to wonder.