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Books: Mortal Sins

4 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

DUTCH SHEA, JR. by John Gregory Dunne Linden Press/Simon & Schuster 352 pages; $15.95

Readers who enjoyed John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions (1977) know the author as a connoisseur of the raffish, the macabre and the sleazy. They also know how deftly Dunne snatches sentiment from the jaws of cynicism, and how he can cut a plot line with fine malice. But in his new novel, Dutch Shea, Jr., sentiment is savagely chewed and the free association of memory is substituted for plot.

This is a rather bold style for a novel that has the marks of popular entertainment. Most readers still prefer their sex, violence and profanity served in a direct, fast-moving narrative. Still, Dunne may be on to something. In an age of soft-core TV, it is not hard to imagine John (“Dutch”) Shea Jr. as the king of the bedtime talk shows, filling the night with tales of greed and lust.

This tainted, conscience-stricken lawyer has seen lowlife from all angles, including a closeup in his bathroom mirror. When not obsessively recycling his own transgressions and those who have transgressed against him, Shea locks vividly onto the burglars, prostitutes, pimps, arsonists and killers who have crossed his path.

The traffic is heavy, the air polluted. No detail is too gross and no conversation too crude to be recorded. It is as if Shea’s residual pride and growing self-hatred prevent him from putting euphemisms between himself and his experience. Raw sin is like a dose of salts, evil is a flail for self-punishment, and the law smells of deals, not ideals. Even his Roman Catholic soul can cop a plea: “He had his script worked out. Confession on his deathbed. Penance. Extreme unction. Two sacraments for the price of one. A perfect act of contrition. Not to mention a perfect way to hedge his bet in case he had backed the wrong horse.”

How did Dutch Shea Jr. get to be such a burnt-out case? There is the immediate anguish caused by the death of his adopted daughter Catherine. “Cat” was dismembered by an I.R.A. bomb in a London restaurant. Shea also fears the impending blast of an audit. He has misused funds from estates he was supposed to oversee. Fear and shame are magnified because his father was a lawyer who hanged himself in prison, where he was serving time for embezzlement.

Like father, like son? The question barely survives the interruptions from the author’s richly mordant characters: Dutch’s lover, Judge Martha Sweeney, who kept her virginity until she was 31 and wears a .38 under her judicial robes; Father Hugh Campion, a “celebrity priest” who won $100,000 on a quiz show and went on to star in Father Hugh’s Kitchen, “the highest-rated cooking program on the air”; Private Detective Marty Cagney (“Discreetly determining what was done—where & with whom”), who compiles the adulterous dirt on Dutch’s exwife; Cagney’s daughter Mary who dumps a rich husband and opens a gay bar; and Clarice Campion, Father Hugh’s sister, who leaves a convent to open a sex-information clinic for ex-nuns.

Dunne turns some good Irish shtik. There are scatological scenes that Richard Pryor might envy. But too often the shocks and surprises are only gratuitous. An introductory note informs the reader that the settings for Shea’s recollections are the two cities where the author spent much of his life. That would be Hartford and Los Angeles, though neither is identified. Instead, Dunne maps the geography inside Dutch Shea’s head. It is a wasteland of appalling dimensions.

—By R.Z. Sheppard

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