Cinemoppet in a trailer park

PLAYLAND by John Gregory Dunne, Granta £14.99
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The Independent Culture
IN an article called "The Beautiful Child", Truman Capote writes of his sense of desperation as a daytime jaunt with Marilyn Monroe draws to an end. As the light fades, so does she: an occasion both symbolic and sad. He wants to cry at her receding figure: "Marilyn, Marilyn, why did everything work out the way it did? Why does life have to be so f***ing rotten?" Instead she asks him what he will write in his piece. "I'll say you are a beautiful child," he replies sadly.

Jack Broderick, the biographer-narrator of Playland, ends his excavation of former child star Blue Tyler feeling a similar sense of frustrated empathy. Here too is an adult woman trapped in an eternal girlhood, the "cinemoppet" turned hag, living in a Middle American trailer park. Here Jack finds her, caked in stale make-up, with vivid memories of the Golden Age of Hollywood, which he exposes as a dirty era of brutal studio patriarchs and corruption.

Dunne writes more than a historical saga, though, offering a bruising, metafictional examination of the construction of celebrity and the shifting function of the biographer. Jack himself, a scriptwriter, sees his hybrid role as "Story-conferencing the truth. A shading here, a shading there, in the interest of clarification."

Blue is born Melba Mae Toolate (pronounced Too-lah-tee), or Myrna Marie Toolate, to a mother who sells her for a bus ticket to a woman who later dies in a suspicious LA car crash. Her father is a convict in any one of six prisons. Her birth date is unclear. From a toddler she is the property of Cosmopolitan Studios, whose press releases reveal "the generic truth of the celebrity machine".

But, hard as the studio tries to prevent it, reality and adulthood intervene. Meta Dierdorf, the companion provided by the studio who becomes a real friend, is found murdered. The times catch up with Blue, too, as Dunne dizzily mixes fact with fiction. Chuckie O'Hara, a gay "Communist sympathiser" and friend, faces the Un-American Activities Committee; Winchell, Hedda and Louella have full speaking parts; the Kefauver hearings on organised crime fail to nail Blue's leonine lover, gangland boss Jacob King.

In the vein of previous work like True Confessions, Dunne plays with perspective, reality and the imagination. But Playland is more ambitious and impressive. Dunne's set-pieces work well: Jack's trip through a rural supermarket with the old Blue, now a psychotic shopaholic, is particularly effective. He imagines with a scene-setter's specificity the '40s parties, ceremonies and back-stabbing. Jacob King is shot dead against an unfinished portrait of himself; Blue recreates a suicide that she read about in a paper - "A good visual," she said to Jack at the time.

So who was she? "Genius. Whore. Individualist. Iconoclast. Liar." In completing his project, Jack feels he has only added to the palimpsest of rumour, fact and fiction: "In the end she was just another diversion for a public with an insatiable appetite for diversion, and I was the agent of that diversion." As Kenneth Anger wrote: "Our icons we deserve, for we have made them."