If Ernest Hemingway had chosen to write about late-20th-century Hollywood while wearing Tennessee Williams’ sunglasses, the result might read very much like this.
McEnroe, the son of Oscar-winning actress Tatum O’Neal and tennis superstar John McEnroe, brings to his first novel a shrewd, melancholy knowledge of celebrity and its discontents. It tracks the descent of Hollywood actress Dorothy White from her charmed, promising youth to dismal, mortifying late-middle age. The Georgia-bred Dorothy is described early on as “a B-movie actress who only briefly experienced any true success, her beauty and her vanilla voice and her appetite for proper living earn[ing] her, almost, infamy.” But she also wanted to be “a good woman. A good wife, and a good mother. And a good grandmother, too.” As detailed as a coroner’s report, but with the delicacy of a romantic elegy, the book spans decades in its description of Dorothy’s best and worst impulses; her penchant for relationships with abusive men, beginning with her more successful movie-star husband, Dale; and, most poignantly, how her addictions to alcohol, tobacco, and drugs abet her physical and emotional decline. The book abounds in rich descriptions of the Southern California landscape, whether of grand Hollywood parties or of a seedy off-track betting parlor in Ventura. Those who know about McEnroe’s family history will find it next-to-impossible not to be haunted while reading by the memory of his actress grandmother, Joanna Moore (1934-1997), with whom Dorothy shares several biographic details. Yet it’s a measure of McEnroe’s promise as a writer that his main character transcends real-life memories to become a vivid, enrapturing personality in her own right. McEnroe’s writing style is felicitously hard-boiled, by turns tender and sardonic, but never less than compassionate toward an ill-starred woman who “never quite figured out how to get out of her own way.”
The novel often evokes the twilight graces of a classic pop ballad, each lyric evoked with care in a cocktail lounge by a soft, sultry voice etched with pain.