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A grisly racial murder in what news commentators insist on calling “the heartland.” A feeding frenzy of mass media and seamy politics. An illicit love affair with the potential to wreck lives. In his grandly inventive last novel, John Gregory Dunne orchestrated these elements into a symphony of American violence, chicanery, and sadness.In the aftermath of Edgar Parlance’s killing, the small prairie town of Regent becomes a destination for everyone from a sociopathic teenaged supermodel to an enigmatic attorney with secret familial links to the worlds of Hollywood and organized crime. Out of their manifold convergences, their jockeying for power, publicity or love, Nothing Lost creates a drama of magnificent scope and acidity.
About the Author
John Gregory Dunne wrote five other novels–Vegas; True Confessions; Dutch Shea, Jr.; The Red White and Blue; and Playland–and seven works of nonfiction , among which are the memoir-like Harp and two books that look at Hollywood, The Studio and Monster. Born in West Hartford, Connecticut, in 1932, he graduated from Princeton in 1954. He collaborated with his wife, the writer Joan Didion, on many screenplays, including Panic in Needle Park and True Confessions. John Gregory Dunne died in December 2003.
Read an Excerpt
That is the end of the story.
Or almost the end.
I’m not sure I’m the one who should be telling it, but if I don’t, nobody will, so what the hell.
We live in a litigious time, and as I do not wish to be the focus of any litigation, I’ve located the major events of what follows in a state I call South Midland. By its name you can intuit a couple of things. Midland suggests the middle of the country, that part grandiosely identified as the Great Plains. South Midland suggests that there is a North Midland, as indeed there is. North Midlanders proudly claim to have the largest Paul Bunyan statue in the world, and perhaps they do, since to the best of my knowledge there are no other claimants. With that highly developed sense of humor we all recognize as indigenous to the Great Plains, South Midlanders say that the best thing in North Midland is Interstate 90 leading to South Midland. People in North Midland often group the two states together as Midlandia, but people in South Midland never do.
The biggest city in South Midland is Kiowa, which of course is Indian or, as we now say, Native American. When traveling out of state, Kiowans often refer to Kiowa as the Chicago of the north-central states. I have never heard a Chicagoan refer to his home as the Kiowa of the Midwest. Our state capital is called, with the imagination we also know as indigenous to the Great Plains, Capital City, usually shortened to Cap City. The University of South Midland, whose main campus is located in Cap City, has never had a Nobel laureate, but its football team has been the national champion three times in the last eight years, and its coach, Dr. John Strong, has been on the cover of Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, and Sports Illustrated (three times, twice as he was doused with Gatorade by his team and assistant coaches after a victory); the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal has even floated his name as a future Republican vice-presidential candidate because of his devotion both to winning and to American ideals. All the university sports teams are named the Rhinos, although there is no palaeontological evidence that herds of rhinoceroses ever roamed the empty vistas of the Great Plains.
I teach a night school course in criminal law at Osceola County Community College in Cap City, and at the first class meeting each semester I tell my students that when I open the Kiowa Times-Ledger and the Capital City Herald every morning, I turn first to the obituary page. In an obit, I say, the spaces between the lines tell all. What is omitted is often more interesting than what is said. Example, from yesterday’s Herald, the deceased, a forty-nine-year-old professor of agronomy at the university, unknown to me, killed by a hit-and-run driver in a Kmart parking lot; said driver, just turned fifteen and without a license, apprehended two blocks from the accident site after blindsiding a brand-new Volvo SUV on a pre-purchase trial spin: “He is survived by his second wife, from whom he was recently divorced, and by a stepson from his first marriage.” Think of the moral and sexual misdemeanors woven into that simple sentence, the mosaic of small, mean betrayals. The mind has difficulty entertaining all the agronomist’s sins and discontents, mortal and venial, the permutations and possibilities of discarded and discarding spouses. And that is before we consider the teenage jerkoff who thought the Kmart parking lot was the Talledega Superspeedway.
Then, to reinforce my point, I drop in Henry James. Although in the academic slum where Osceola Community is resident, The Golden Bowl is not exactly required reading. (Due diligence requires me to admit that I never actually finished it—I was bored by the Ververs—but I did see the movie and thought the actor who played Prince Amerigo not unattractive.) Anyway, James once wrote in an essay I saw quoted on the Net that the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern—that constitutes experience.
Henry James, I tell them, would have made a great criminal attorney. That would no doubt send him spinning in his grave, and it makes those of my students who know who he was (four, perhaps five, no more) laugh nervously.
I know most of the principals in the story I am about to tell, and a number of the walk-ons as well. I am even, as you will find out soon enough, a minor character. Some of the carnage that ensued I witnessed. Some of it was told to me. On the record, off the record, who cares now? Some of the principals did not realize they were telling me. Sealed audiotapes. Film, as in “Film at 11.” I went to the printed record, voluminous if you know where to look. Court transcripts. Discussions in chambers with a court reporter present. Proceedings of the South Midland Bar Association. Testimony before the Judiciary Committee of the State Legislature. Interviews in the legal journals.
I broke an Internet password. Read the spaces between the lines. Traced the implication of things. Guessed the unseen from the seen. Judged the whole piece by the pattern. Surmised. Triangulated. Extrapolated.
Anything that passed through my filter carries my shadows, my impri- matur. As fact, it might be suspect, but as truth it is as close as I can get. If you were the filter, your facts, or your memory of them, might be equally suspect, but the truth, presupposing your honesty, or as close as you could get to it.
But you weren’t there, and I was, so fuck off.
I think I got it right.
And if I didn’t, it’s the available version.
Of course it began with Edgar Parlance.
His death, and the obscene brutality of it, immediately captured the headlines and the newsbreaks of the gluttonous 24/7 news cycle, searching as always for the correct and visually gratifying metaphor to validate the American experience, or, better yet, to provide a dark parable about that same experience. It is my own feeling that life began going downhill with “You give us twenty-two minutes, we’ll give you the world.” I think I would have preferred to live in the age of the pony express, allowing as it did, I would like to think, a time for contemplation before action was deemed necessary. 24/7, plus the transitory involvement of a president looking for a way to act presidential as the second term of his forgettable administration was winding down to its unlamented conclusion, gave Edgar Parlance’s murder the push it needed to become a major media event, bringing with it the usual suspects, talking heads prattling about race hatred and the phenomenon of what they insisted on calling “Terror in the Heartland.” It was a heartland that existed only in their fevered imaginations, neighborly values and small-town ways, stoked not by reality but by Oscar Hammerstein, we know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand. Crap, of course. This land was fertilized with blood. Jesse and Frank James, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, killers all, sanitized into public darlings by Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
Dixon McCall didn’t mention Jesse or Frank, Bonnie or Clyde.
PRESIDENT TO ATTEND PARLANCE FUNERAL
Washington, D.C. (cnn 12:42 p.m. edt)—President Dixon McCall will interrupt his Midwestern fundraising trip to attend the funeral of Edgar Parlance, White House deputy press secretary Anita Bowne announced today. Parlance, a 39-year-old African American, was the victim of a brutal race-related torture slaying earlier this week outside the small town of Regent, South Midland.
The President, who has often feuded with civil rights leaders and the Congressional Black Caucus in the past, has asked the Reverend Jesse Jackson to accompany him from Capital City to Regent in the presidential helicopter.
In a statement Bowne released to reporters, the President said, “Let the healing begin.”
Dixon McCall’s special rhetorical skills always seemed to begin with the construction “Let.” As in, “Let us look forward, not back,” “Let us walk together,” “Let the sun shine through,” “Let the forces of light persevere,” “Let us put our differences behind us.” (All from Dix: Finding the Words That Defined the McCall Presidency, from a speechwriter unhappily influenced by the “thousand points of light” template.)
The autopsy and forensic photos indicated that Parlance had been skinned alive, the meat on his upper thighs sliced with a razor, box cutter, or sharp knife and then pulled away slice by slice with a pair of pliers. The same pliers that had pulled the tongue from his mouth so that he was not able to scream. Edgar Parlance was thirty-nine, a big man, six feet tall, 180 pounds, leading the investigators from the Loomis County Sheriff’s Office and the South Midland Bureau of Investigation to speculate that because of his size it must have taken two or more people to kill him. Then the autopsy report concluded that it wasn’t even the skinning that finished him off. It was a hollow-point from a .38-caliber DS-II Detective Special that blew the back of his head off. One of his knees had been shattered, probably with a tire iron, and what remained of the left side of his face was crushed, apparently by the boots of his assailants. Indicating that Edgar had put up an uncommon struggle before he succumbed. And what turned out to be the most interesting fact of the crime was that his shirt had been torn open and the letter P carved into his chest with what was later identified as a thirteen-inch double-edged knife its manufacturer picturesquely called, in the gun- show catalogues, a Tennessee Toothpick. The assumption of the SMBI detectives and the Loomis County Sheriff’s Department was that the P stood for Parlance, meaning that the killers, whoever they were, were probably familiar with their victim.
As it happened, the first part of the assumption was wrong.
I wonder how long the story would have played had it not been a slow news period. It was a nonelection fall, the economy was stumbling along as it had throughout the McCall administration, the rising indicators balancing out the falling, Wall Street was bullish one week, bearish the next, the war clouds of August were blown away by the Berne propos- als of September. No scandals had captured the public imagination (a House counsel in a men’s room, an undersecretary’s wife with her minister—sorry stuff), Halloween loomed, Thanksgiving, that most tedious and unnecessary of national holidays, threatened, promising only Christmas, and with it the obligation to think about, and pretend we believe in, the concept of family and giving, the holly and the ivy. The murder of Edgar Parlance was unspeakably barbaric, but blacks have been strung up, roasted, crucified, mutilated, castrated, and decapi- tated as a form of public entertainment throughout our history. What is a Tennessee Toothpick, after all, but a lethal artifact of the entertainment culture? Dead, Edgar Parlance had a legitimacy that he never had alive. Dead, he had become an icon. Because dead, people did not have to associate with him. He was a victim, a convenient symbol of man’s inhumanity to man, the kind of black man white people can most easily grasp unto themselves. To prove to themselves that the aberrant behavior of the lowest of their kind against the racially less fortunate will not be tolerated. Like limpets, sentiment and innocence attach themselves to a victim. The New York Times, the newspaper of record, is exhibit number one:
EASYGOING MAN, EASYGOING TOWN
By FELIPE DELL and CAMERON KEOGH
Regent, SM, November 1—Everyone who knew him called him “Gar,” the diminutive of his given name, Edgar. And no one had a bad word for Gar Parlance in this sleepy cattle and farming community in the southeastern corner of South Midland tangent to Kansas and Missouri. He mowed their lawns, he hauled their trash, and when the weather was warm and jobs were available, and if he felt like it, he did manual labor for the Department of Highways or the Burlington Northern Railroad.
And if he did not feel like it, which was more often than not, he would spend the afternoons napping and fishing out by Loomis Falls, a nineteenth-century man-made waterfall that diverted the path of the Albion River so that it irrigated the rich farm flatlands of northern Loomis County.
“I’m like tumbleweed,” Parlance once told local barber Joe Salmon, whose lawn he mowed every Saturday afternoon until the snows came. “Wherever I go, I always tumble right on back to Regent.”
His affection for his hometown is the main reason residents cannot fathom how Parlance became the victim in one of the most grotesque racial murders in recent American history, his flesh torn from his body with pliers, the letter P carved into his chest like an engraving, and his tongue severed from his mouth. For two days, his body went undiscovered until a dog belonging to farmer Eugene Hicks found his remains in a field outside town, and barked until his master came to see what was the matter.
“I guess we just thought Gar was tumbling again,” Mr. Salmon said.
“Regent—A Place Fit for Kings” read the road signs leading into town. “Pop. 3,679.” Claude Applewhite, pastor of the Bethany Methodist Church, looked sadly at the sign this week and remarked, “I guess we’re down to 3,678 now that Gar’s gone.”
Regent takes its name from the English-owned Regent Cattle Company, which settled the town immediately after the Civil War, when younger sons of landed British nobility came to the New World to make their fortune. It was a rough-and-tumble time. The English aristocrats built the Loomis Waterfall, and the diversion of the Albion River nearly precipitated a range war with the ranchers of neighboring Albion County.
The Regent Cattle Company went bankrupt around the turn of the century, when beef prices tumbled. A check of county tax and property records reveals that none of its En- glish supervisors—people with names like Lovat and Angell and Simsbury and Stuart—chose to remain when times were no longer flush and the longhorns disappeared from the rolling plains. What they gave to Regent were the names of the four cobblestone streets bordering the Loomis County Courthouse, on the lawn outside of which stands a scaled-down man-sized Statue of Liberty.
Yellow ribbons adorn the clothes of most people in Regent this week. Those who did not personally know Parlance remember his daily wanderings through town. “He was always smiling,” town librarian and resident local historian Marjorie Hudnut said. “He’d come into the library and say, ‘Miss Marjorie, give me something new to read.’ He liked to read naval stories. Hora- tio Hornblower, that sort of thing. I can’t say he ever really finished any of them. I think the library was just a place for him to take a nap.”
It seems particularly ironic that here in the middle of the American heartland, Parlance would dream of the four winds and the seven seas.
No one seems to know exactly when Parlance sank his roots in Regent. “He was here, then he wasn’t, then just as you began to miss him, he was back again,” Miss Hudnut said. “He’d be gone for a year, sometimes two, you’d say, ‘Gosh, I haven’t seen Gar in a bit,’ then he wasn’t gone anymore. It was like he never left.”
“Gar was like that Forrest Gump fella,” Marcus Garvey Case, the local African-American undertaker, recalled. “He said there wasn’t a state in the union he hadn’t walked through.”
“Forrest Gump was a runner, Marcus,” Pastor Applewhite said.
“Gar was no runner,” Mr. Salmon said. “He was a walker. He had two speeds.”
“Slow and slower,” Miss Hudnut said.
Parlance had no known survivors. “He said his daddy run off when he was a little one,” Mr. Salmon said. “After his momma died,” Miss Hudnut said.
“That’s when he first hit the road,” Loomis County Sheriff Brutus Mayes said. “Keep moving, that was Gar’s motto.”
Mayes was a former All-Pro linebacker for the Detroit Lions until his knee blew out. When injuries forced him into retirement, he entered law enforcement in the town where he was raised. Last year, he was reelected to a second term, winning 72 percent of the vote.
Parlance lived in a tiny, immaculately clean one-room apartment above Claude Applewhite’s garage. Its only decorations were a number of melted wax votive candles twisted into bizarre shapes.
Parlance never managed to put together enough money to buy even a used car. “Gar would say, ‘A car don’t matter in a town this size,’ ” Mr. Case recalled. “ ‘I got the best two wheels in the world—my own two feet.’ ”
Perhaps the reason Parlance never drove is that when he was 19 he was sentenced to a four-year prison term at the Colorado State Penitentiary for stealing an automobile in Alamosa. “All I was trying to do was get back to Regent in a big damn hurry,” he told undertaker Case. “ ‘If I’d walked,’ ” Mr. Case reported him saying this week, “ ‘I’d have got back here a lot quicker than that four I spent in Colorado.’ ”
Sheriff Mayes said he occasionally had to lock Parlance up for public drunkenness, but he was always out by the next morning. No charges were ever filed, nor was any record of arrest registered. “It was just a place for him to sleep it off on a cold night,” Sheriff Mayes said. “It’s a funny thing to say, but he was a pleasure to have in my jail. He’d talk my ear off about places he’d been. New Hampshire. Places like that. ‘They got no taxes in New Hampshire, Brutus,’ he’d say. ‘You got to go there.’ ”
Today in Regent, Sheriff Mayes, Miss Hudnut, Mr. Case, Mr. Salmon and Pastor Applewhite tied a yellow ribbon on the miniature Statue of Liberty outside the Loomis County Courthouse.
It will remain there until the killer or killers of Edgar Parlance are arrested and brought before the bar of justice.
Remember those votive candles.
Everyone wanted a piece of the Parlance saga. Johnnie L. Cochran announced that he would represent the Parlance family interest in any civil litigation and negotiate any subsidiary motion picture or literary rights. Even the Klan, after a fashion, signed on. In Waco, the grand dragon denied that the Klan had anything to do with the murder of “this so-called African American,” but he added that there were “many good white Americans” who felt as if they had been “bypassed by government toadying to the Negro rabble-rousing element, and may have decided that some sort of compensatory action was necessary.” When pressed about the definition of “compensatory action,” he did allow that “maybe the lesson went a bit too far.” Brutus Mayes became a chat-show regular, with more airtime than he had since he was in the NFL. “We don’t have no Aryan Nation or KKK deal here in Regent,” he told CNN, Fox 5, and MSNBC. “Our friends in the white community are as appalled at this Parlance deal as black folks are.” At a prayer vigil in Los Angeles, Jamaal Jefferson of the Los Angeles Clippers announced that he would pay for Parlance’s funeral, and said he had lobbied NBA president Steven Silver to set up an annual Parlance Trophy, to be given each year to that NBA player who best promotes the idea of racial tolerance and understanding. The first contributor to the Parlance Fund was Cyrus Icha- bod, CEO of I-Bod, the sneaker and sportswear conglomerate that paid Jamaal Jefferson $11 million annually to promote its sporting goods.
Hollywood of course got on the bandwagon. A director named Sydney Allen said that he and his producing partner, Martin Magnin, were negotiating to secure the rights to the Parlance story. “This will be a major motion picture about race,” Magnin told CNN, “but we want to concentrate on the man.” Cyrus Ichabod said he planned to invest in the picture, his first venture in the film industry. “Jamaal Jefferson would be perfect for the part,” Martin Magnin told all available outlets. “It would open a whole new career for him. We see him as a kind of young Morgan Freeman.” That Jamaal Jefferson was fifteen years younger than Edgar Parlance did not pose a problem, or at least none that could not be remedied. “Maybe Morgan Freeman could play Gar, and Jamaal would be his young friend.”
What the late Edgar Parlance had become was a lottery ticket on the money tree.
If I may mix a metaphor.
I watched Edgar Parlance’s funeral on TV. Bethany Methodist in Regent was the place to be in South Midland that day. An SRO crowd inside the church and closed-circuit monitors for the throng of public and press gathered outside. Speaking from the pulpit, Dixon McCall was in his let mode: “Let us inoculate the land against the fevers of hate.” Jesse was there, and Johnnie Cochran in an iridescent heliotrope Buck and the Preacher suit, and Jamaal Jefferson and Cyrus Ichabod and Martin Magnin, who let it slip to MSNBC as he entered the church that he would be “scouting locations” in and around Regent after paying his “last respects.” None of South Midland’s political hierarchy could afford to miss the event. You’d never have known that Guy Kennedy, the Democratic governor in a generally Republican state, was the political equivalent of a dead man walking the way he bounced up the aisle shaking every hand as if he were entering the Hall of Delegates to address the state legislature. The Secret Service tried to direct the governor into a pew three rows behind the president, but Kennedy slipped past them and sat across the aisle from Dixon McCall with Jesse, Jamaal Jefferson, and Cyrus Ichabod. The Worm was also there. The Worm is Jerrold (“Gerry”) Wormwold, South Midland’s attorney general. The Worm was gearing up to run against Kennedy, and even though he had not announced, the polls gave him a double-digit lead. The Worm was a born-again Christian, and he sat in the front pew next to Dixon McCall, practically hugging him. If you intuit that I am less than enthusiastic about the Worm, your instinct would be correct. More later.
Poppy was also there, sitting on the other side of Dixon McCall. Congresswoman Sonora (“Poppy”) McClure, La Pasionara of the Republi- can right wing, and the Worm’s worst nightmare. Poppy had floated the notion that she might run for governor herself, and because of her combative high-octane style, she was the best-known politician in the state, one who, unlike the Worm, could guarantee maximum national media coverage. What the Worm was best known for was his unfortunate nickname, a name that gave Poppy an opening to make all kinds of allusions, veiled and otherwise, to squishy invertebrates absent backbones. I am not all that sure that Poppy could have beaten the Worm in a primary. I think she was counting on scaring him into folding by promising a scorched-earth primary that she was well aware could ultimately end up delivering the state to Guy Kennedy in the general election.
Outside Bethany Methodist at the end of the service, Jamaal Jefferson led the crowd in a hip-hop version of “Amazing Grace.” Poppy linked arms with Jesse and Johnnie Cochran and hip-hopped right along with them as if she had spent her life down and dirty.
The Worm thought Jesse and Jamaal and Johnnie were agents of Satan.
He did not think much more highly of Poppy McClure.
Coincidentally, two days after Edgar Parlance’s funeral, South Midland was scheduled to conduct its first execution since 1959. Small potatoes when compared to Texas or Florida. The condemned man was a pedophile sex murderer named Percy Darrow, who had been convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering nine-year-old twin brothers named Patrick and Lyman James. The James twins were found buried and largely decomposed in a shallow trench in Phil Sheridan County by a brace of retrievers on the first day of duck season. I was the head of the Homicide Bureau in the state attorney general’s office in those days, and I assigned myself to prosecute Percy Darrow. The legislature had just reinstituted the death penalty, I favor capital punishment, the case was open and shut, and at some future date, when all Darrow’s appeals were exhausted, he would be strapped into the electric chair at the state penitentiary on Durango Avenue in Cap City. Durango Avenue is the oldest of the three maximum-security prisons maintained by the South Midland Department of Corrections (there was one in Halloween County and a recently opened supermax in Sunflower County), and the facility where all executions as far back as hanging days had historically been held. The Worm, however, had other ideas. Shortly after he was elected attorney general, he had me removed from the case. It’s a long story that I’ll get into presently, accounting as it does for one of the reasons I find myself narrating these events. I was replaced by my number two in the Homicide Bureau, James Joseph McClure. J.J. was also Poppy McClure’s husband. The Worm no doubt thought he was not only getting rid of me, but doing Poppy a favor.
Proving that no good deed goes unpunished.
It was J.J. who would get to attend Percy Darrow’s execution.
J.J., by the way, did not accompany Poppy to Edgar Parlance’s funeral.
There was another story below the fold on the front pages of the Kiowa Times-Ledger and the Capital City Herald that week. The Rhinos from South Midland University were set to play Florida State in the Orange Bowl New Year’s night for the national college football championship. In South Midland, football was the secular religion, more important than God, certainly more important than Edgar Parlance or Percy Darrow. What kept the football fever in check and the Orange Bowl coverage muted was whether the Rhinos’ All-American nose tackle, Ralph (“Jocko”) Cannon, Jr., would be allowed to dress for the game. Jocko was not medicating a football injury. Rather, a coed named Brittany Barnes had accused him of dragging her down three flights of stairs in Rhino Land, the dormitory and student-center complex that accommodated all of USM’s athletic teams, male and female, segregating them from the rest of the undergraduate population as the Romans did with their gladiators. Brittany Barnes’s skull was fractured, her cheekbone shattered, and her two front teeth knocked so far into her palate that she needed oral surgery to dig them out.
Jocko Cannon was unavailable for comment. A university spokesman said he was in seclusion with the Cannon family minister and spiritual advisor, the Reverend Hardy Luther of the United Church of Almighty God. Rhino football coach Dr. John Strong promised to lead a campus candlelight vigil asking Jesus to watch over both Brittany Barnes and Jocko Cannon in what Strong called “their common hour of need.”
The Worm wanted no part of the Jocko Cannon case. USM v. FSU with Jocko Cannon unavailable to suit up for the Rhinos because of a possible criminal investigation conducted by his office was the Worm’s idea of a political nightmare. Jocko Cannon’s father, Ralph Cannon, Sr., was the finance chairman of the Republican Party in South Midland. Without the benediction of Ralph Cannon, Sr., the Worm as Republican candidate for governor was dead in the water.
So he did what he thought was the smart thing. He bumped the case to J.J. McClure. Let Poppy’s husband handle it. Indirectly letting Poppy take the heat. Maybe Poppy was right: the Worm would fold if the pressure got too heavy.
There was one more newsbreak that week:
XXXXX DRUDGE REPORT XXXXX NOVEMBER 4, 17:26:02 XXXXX
Two white men in custody for Parlance slaying
Duane Lajoie, 21, and Bryant Gover, 23, were arrested today in South Midland after trying to crash through a roadblock set up at the county line separating Loomis and Albion counties, the Drudge Report has learned. There was immediate speculation that the two men, both unemployed and both said to be ex-convicts, would be charged with the murder of Edgar Parlance.
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