Picks and Pans Review: Playland
09/26/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
by John Gregory Dunne
John Gregory Dunne's new novel, Playland, juxtaposes the glamor of the '40s, when gangsters dressed to kill and bad girls cussed and shimmied in nightclubs like the Copacabana, with today's indiscriminate violence and insatiable media fascination with the instantly famous.
Screenwriter Jack Broderick, a billionaire's son, has just lost his wife in a car crash and been arrested for whacking a dreadlocked mugger with a bag of sheets from Bergdorfs and killing him, when he stumbles upon Blue Tyler, a onetime child star who "fell off the planet earth" 45 years previously. Now she has been reduced to clipping supermarket coupons in a trailer park in Hamtramck, Mich., Jack becomes fascinated with the former actress, who was made famous at age 4 by J.F. French (aka Moe Frankel), head of Cosmopolitan Pictures. Through newspaper articles and columns, studio press releases and interviews with Blue and those closest to her in her heyday, Jack pieces together Tyler's early life, even as she disappears again. He talks to Chuckie O'Hara, the gay, Communist, one-legged war hero director who exposed his stump to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and to Blue's former lover, Arthur French, son of J.F. He learns of Blue's tempestuous affair with gangster Jacob King, who was sent west by New York crime boss Morris Lefkowitz to get a piece of the action in Las Vegas and was eventually executed there in his extravagant and overbudget hotel, King's Playland. And he stumbles onto the unsolved murder of Blue's childhood friend Meta Dierdof, revealing further layers of dirty doings.
Throughout Playland, Dunne knowingly interweaves historical fact and rumor with fictional characters who evoke real people (Jacob King for Bugsy Siegal) to explore the sleazy underpinnings of Hollywood: the sexual and financial exploitation fostered by the studio system and the movie industry's connections to organized crime. Brilliant cinematic scenes, crackling surefooted dialogue and rapid-fire prose, however, don't make a great novel. The story of Blue Tyler never becomes truly interesting or compelling. Rather, it is lost in the plethora of anecdotes and information that make up Playland's, appeal. (Random House, $25)