Readers are hereby enjoined from heeding malicious speculation. There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that A Season in Purgatory, Dominick Dunne’s highly entertaining if rather salacious novel about a criminally rich clan of Irish Catholic New Englanders with dynastic political ambitions, is meant to represent any family you ever heard of. All characters and incidents portrayed are purely imaginary. Any and all resemblances to Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy of Boston, Hyannisport, Palm Beach, etc., their heirs and descendants, courtiers, and hangers-on are wholly and purely coincidental.
Okay, so there are some resemblances: Paterfamilias Gerald Bradley — an almost comically ruthless tycoon with a habit of slipping into the beds of his daughters’ bridesmaids, then doling out mink coats and hush money-may appear to have been lifted from the pages of Nigel Hamilton’s controversial biography JFK. Ditto Bradley’s shallow, social-climbing, ostentatiously pious wife, Grace. Or their huge brood of toothy, charming, athletic children-including the martyred Kevin, killed in a war he could have avoided, and poor mad Agnes, sequestered among nuns and forgotten. But there are big differences from the Kennedy saga too. The Bradley boys, see, attend Yale, not Harvard. They go to Congress from Connecticut, not Massachusetts. And they don’t play touch football. They play softball.
And it’s with a softball bat that handsome, charismatic Constant Bradley, his father’s favorite, is said to have bludgeoned to death a 15-year-old neighbor named Winifred Utley late one night in 1973. According to the Bradleys and their sycophants among the press, it’s a vicious, entirely false accusation made nearly 20 years after the fact by one Harrison Burns, a scholarship student befriended by Constant at prep school and given an Ivy League education at his family’s expense. And besides, the wench was a tease. ”A youthful prank that got out of hand,” Constant’s father and brothers think.
However, Burns himself, the novel’s protagonist and sometime narrator, tells a different story — an almost Dickensian tale of teenage infatuation, moral seduction, bribery, cover-up, and haunting guilt. ”Be careful, Harrison. That’s all I ask,” warns his maiden aunt, Gert. ”It’s very dangerous to be around those people when you don’t have their kind of money.”
For all its commercial slickness, there’s much to praise in the first two-thirds of the novel. The author of The Two Mrs. Grenvilles and An Inconvenient Woman, Dunne has made a career of depicting the sins of the polo-playing set. His knowing portrayal of the Bradley clan achieves exactly the right balance of satire and compassion. Readers will find it hard to decide which is the more ludicrous spectacle: rich Irish Catholics who ape the British upper classes, or the WASP neighbors who snub them.
Alas, something goes badly wrong in the novel at just about the time that Burns, by now a successful ”true crime” writer with a particular interest in the psychological effects of long-buried secrets, allows himself to be swept into the family’s orbit for the second time. ”It’s like a big black cloud hovering over the two of us,” he informs Constant in soap opera tones. ”The unmentioned subject. The thing we pretend never happened….Dare I even say the words? Winifred Utley.”
No sooner dares he say them, however, than A Season in Purgatory veers into melodrama. What ought to have been the gripping courtroom drama hinted at in the novel’s opening pages becomes a murky progression of botched assassinations, fortuitous heart attacks and strokes, and a homicide trial filled with more legal absurdities than a half-dozen episodes of Night Court. After so promising a start, it’s a letdown. Even so, a solid B.