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“The Friday Afternoon Club” reviewed

Early in this deft and multifaceted family memoir, Griffin Dunne admits that he has been known to tell the odd tall tale. His father was the journalist and author Dominick Dunne, and his aunt and uncle Joan Didion and John Dunne, so while most children might fabricate a story about an imaginary trip or pet, for example, Dunne’s family was privileged enough that he could invent a casual encounter with Jackie and John Kennedy at church and have it be believable. “I had been brought up on stories told by people who loved to tell stories,” he writes. And while he quickly learns not to trust anything he has heard, particularly from his father, the lies peel away to reveal a generous, starry book that veers into deeper emotional waters than your standard chronicle of well-connected Hollywood life.

Dunne is merely the latest in a long line of raconteurs and characters. There was the great-great-uncle who died in flagrante with his mistress on a yacht – his body was dressed in pyjamas and moved back to his hotel room on dry land, where his wife was told he had died in his sleep. There was the great-great-aunt who wed her lover just in time for them to attend her previous husband’s funeral as a married couple. But they are just the warm-up act for his immediate family: his father Dominick, his mother Ellen, or Lenny, and his siblings Alex and Dominique. The Friday Afternoon Club is named after the informal gatherings of actors Dominique would host each week. After she starred in Poltergeist, her career was very much in the ascendant when she was killed by a violent ex-boyfriend at the age of 22. Her death means the book dramatically shifts register about halfway through.

Before Dominique’s death, we have an elegant account of an eccentric family at the heart of Hollywood in the 1960s and 70s, with stars dropping in to the Dunnes’s Los Angeles home. Dominick liked to host fabulous sounding parties where studio heads and movie stars would mingle among the canapes. For the couple’s 10th wedding anniversary, he threw a black and white themed ball attended by Truman Capote, Natalie Wood, John Huston and Dennis Hopper.  It would also be the couple’s final anniversary, as Lenny filed for divorce from her husband, who later came out as gay, less than a year later.

As a movie-business memoir, it is brisk and classy. Dunne’s sex and drugs years give it a Bret Easton Ellis feel, without quite the same level of brashness, and there is plenty of name-dropping, though most of it is well earned. He attends a party thrown by his aunt and uncle on the promise that Janis Joplin will be there, only to be cornered by the director Otto Preminger, who is having a bad trip on acid. He idolises the carpenter who built the decking at the Dunne-Didion house – a carpenter named Harrison Ford. Tennessee Williams gropes him at a party. As a teenager, he befriends a charming girl called Carrie Fisher, and the story of their lifelong close friendship gives a clear sense of Fisher’s wit and character.

In his work as a producer, actor and director – Dunne directed Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock in Practical Magic, and in 2017 released The Center Will Not Hold, a documentary about his aunt Joan, though the book ends long before both – he is clearly intrigued by fame and its effects, though fascinatingly he has a strong line in self-sabotage. Whenever fame begins to circle him, he backs away from it, as if appalled at the offer. In a genuinely unexpected twist, his leading man career is derailed when he signs up for a disastrous film “about a man who talks to his penis”. Jack Nicholson wisely declines to be the voice of the penis.

In 1982, when Dunne was 27 and trying to scrape a living as a theatre actor in New York, his father called to tell him that Dominique had been strangled by her ex-boyfriend and was on life support in Los Angeles. She died days later. The Friday Afternoon Club begins with this nightmarish memory, and then returns to it, splitting the book into a harrowing before and after. The second part of the story recounts his sister’s death and the appalling criminal trial of her attacker, John Sweeney. We move from Less Than Zero territory into something more reminiscent of Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, another indelible personal account of a murder trial involving a family member. Dunne is forensic in his reporting of what went so wrong. Information about Sweeney’s history of violence towards an ex-girlfriend was withheld from the jury. The judge’s animosity towards the family appeared blatant. Even now, 40 years on, the extent to which justice was allowed to unravel remains shocking. Sweeney was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and released after fewer than four years behind bars.

Dunne continues to work as an actor while the trial takes place, managing to divide his life into two distinct and separate dramas, but on set, thanks to a series of characteristically bizarre coincidences, he finds himself being offered the services of a hitman who could assassinate Sweeney in prison. Things are going badly, and he is briefly tempted by the idea. For years after that, his rage towards his sister’s killer flames intensely as he tracks Sweeney from city to city, warning any new girlfriends about what he did and what he might be capable of doing again. Eventually, to his surprise, the anger simply begins to die down. “I choose not to forgive or forget,” he writes, accepting only that hate no longer has such a hold on him.

In classic Dunne family style, Sweeney’s trial made his father’s name as a reporter: Tina Brown asked him to write about it for Vanity Fair, and the piece had a huge impact. Everything is copy, as Nora Ephron famously said, but throughout the book, Dunne explores the question of what is and isn’t legitimate material. His father would talk about his daughter’s death on chatshows for the rest of his life. “He seemed all too ready and willing to use Dominique’s trial as a springboard for his own midlife metamorphosis,” writes Dunne, though he notes that he isn’t sure whether the father noticed his son’s ambivalence. After an anecdote about Dunne’s teenage masturbation ends up in one of his uncle John’s novels, he recalls his aunt Joan’s famous aphorism: “Writers are always selling someone out.”

Though we witness Dunne morphing from self-confessed fibber into painfully candid memoirist, there is no sense that he is selling his family out here. His story is unsparing but also affectionate, alternately flattering and stark, depending on the scene. What emerges is a novelistic and compelling account of a life, and a self-deprecating guide to the Dunnes’s many highs and lows. It is a fond yet riveting family portrait.