TOO MUCH MONEY, by Dominick Dunne. Crown, 275 pp., $26.
When an author dies, so, too, must his alter ego - though with the posthumous publication of "Too Much Money," society journalist, novelist and man-about-town Gus Bailey has outlived his creator, Dominick Dunne - who died of bladder cancer in August - by several months. "Too Much Money" is a rueful swan song, a fluffy satire with mortality at its heart.
Augustus Bailey and most of the other characters in this book debuted in Dunne's bestselling "People Like Us," a novel of '80s excess among the New York Social Register set. Everyone calls Augustus Gus, just as everyone called Dominick Nick - that's the way things go in these E-Z-Peel romans-a-clef. Bailey's misfortunes, like Dunne's, include the murder of his daughter by her ex-boyfriend. His primary employer is a magazine called Park Avenue (i.e., Vanity Fair), for which he covered the trials of characters exactly like Claus von Bulow, William Kennedy Smith, Michael Skakel and the Menendez brothers. In a later novel, "Another City Not My Own," Bailey returned with his aka version of the O.J. Simpson trial, the peak beat of Dunne's career.
Despite its title, many of the characters in "Too Much Money" are having financial problems. Even the grande dame of New York society, Lil Altemus, finds her circumstances so reduced that she loses both her apartment and her maid. Those who've hung onto their dough have other woes. Nouveau riche financier Elias Renthal has been doing hard time in Las Vegas while his wife, Ruby, takes a titled lesbian lover. Winkie Williams, New York's greatest "walker" - a dashing gay guy who escorts rich ladies to parties - is preyed on by arrivistes as he plots the overdose that will get him out of a slow death by cancer.
Winkie is "riddled with cancer," as his glitzy friends, and he himself, say over and over; the trivializing quality of phrases like this is one of the things Dunne gets just right. Equally trivializing are their preppy names - Winkie and Maisie, Bratsie and Bunny, Kay Kay and Dodo, Jonsie and Brucie and Chiquita - especially now that they're all senior citizens.
Winkie's old friend Gus has cancer, too, which he believes was caused by the stress resulting from "a monstrously unpleasant experience involving some monstrously unpleasant people": Like Dunne, he relied on an unsubstantiated tip to accuse a congressman called Kyle Cramden (Gary Condit) of involvement in the case of missing intern Diandra Lomax (Chandra Levy). Now he is being sued by the meanest lawyer in the world for $11 million. Profoundly depressed by this, he plans to fund his defense by writing a book blaming the world's third-richest woman for the fire in a Biarritz mansion that caused her husband's death. But this project sinks under the very weight of the gossip it generates.
One of the best things about "Too Much Money" is how it cleverly makes the repetition of gossip into a kind of poetry. Each morsel of news is passed from one character to the next, from one scene to the next, echoing through the chapters like the repeated lines or words of a villanelle: She slipped on the linoleum and died; he slept with the funeral director; they paid to sit next to the Duke. Did you hear he is going out with the funeral director? Is it true she slipped on the linoleum? How much did they pay to sit next to the Duke? Can you hear the Elizabeth Bishop in this? The characters' continuous amusement with the same six pieces of information becomes an art form.
At the end of the book, weighed down by bad luck and bad news, Gus leaves a party for what his friends sense will be the last time. The 85th birthday celebration he planned will have to go on without him. As did Dunne's 84th birthday, celebrated by friends gathered at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont after he was gone.
Dominick Dunne died on the same day as Teddy Kennedy; Dunne's New York Times obituary included - in the first paragraph - the information that his family tried to hold the announcement of his death to avoid having his coverage overshadowed by that of the senator.
Can you imagine that, Bratsie?