To the end, Dunne spared no venom for the rich

By Judy Budz
Globe Correspondent / December 22, 2009

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In “Too Much Money,’’ Dominick Dunne leaves his fans with a last delicious dish on the rich and famous he knew and loved to skewer so well. Dunne completed the book before he died in August at 83, and his touch and tone are obvious on every page.

Always fascinated with the lives of East Coast money, Dunne fictionalized these people in his novels and reported on them in his Diary column for Vanity Fair magazine. Several of his subjects subsequently refused to speak to him, but the A-list mourners at his funeral attest to his place in the society he chronicled.

“Too Much Money’’ rejoins some of the characters of an earlier novel “People Like Us.’’ First comes Gus Bailey, a journalist and Dunne’s fictional alter ego. Gus is currently writing a novel about the mysterious death of the super rich Konstantin Zacharias in Biarritz; he suspects the wife was involved. But Gus has his own problems, including cancer and a slander suit, both obvious parallels to Dunne’s own life. The writer died of bladder cancer and had faced legal action over comments he made linking Gary Condit, a former California congressman, to the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy.

Disgraced financier Elias Renthal and his wife, Ruby, also make a reappearance. Elias, who was convicted of financial malfeasance and sentenced to seven years in a federal facility, is soon to be paroled. He and Ruby have hatched expensive plans to reestablish their position in New York society.

These story lines meander along, while Dunne fills us in on the lives of “the rich, those who were about to become richer, and those who were hanging on by their thumbs.’’ Status symbols and dropped names abound. The Renthals have renovated a fabulous East Side mansion, its interior designed by Ogden Codman (who co-authored a book with Edith Wharton). Stylish men buy their ties from renowned British clothier Turnbull and Asser. Oscar de la Renta designs a “Ruby Renthal Red’’ dress and then sews Ruby into it for the Renthal society gala at the Four Seasons Restaurant.

Dunne was perhaps using “Too Much Money’’ to gain some perspective on his life. The novel feels more like a farewell than a satiric examination of large or even petty crimes, Dunne’s typical modus operandi. A terminally ill society walker meticulously plans his suicide, sending $1,000 orchids to his dearest friends, downing his pills with pricey champagne, and choosing just the right pajamas. Gus himself has been to the Dominican Republic for experimental cancer treatment. He worries about leaving no inheritance for his sons and his granddaughter.

Without a cheat sheet, it is not always easy to identify Dunne’s thinly veiled characters, which is probably good news for many of them. After all, this society is not a pretty one. They steal each other’s servants and family treasures, snipe at their closest friends, jockey over seating charts at luncheons, and dump anyone whose thumbs are not strong enough to hang onto their money.

But this is Dunne’s crowd as well as Gus’s, and the real-life novelist appears to give himself the sweetest of compliments. Looking over the social powerhouses at the Renthal fete, Gus’s editor reminds him: “You’re the most popular man at the party . . . everyone wants to talk to you.’’

Judy Budz is a professor of English at Fitchburg State College.

TOO MUCH MONEY By Dominick Dunne

Crown, 288 pp., $26

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