Thursday, June 7, 2012

Another City, Not My Own

Recently, I read the novel Another City, Not My Own by Dominick Dunne. This book was the library equivalent of an impulse buy: I was at the library, in the stacks, looking for a book I needed to read for my book club. I found it and was on my way out when this one caught my eye. I'm not really sure why, but once I read the description on the back, I knew I had to take it home with me.
This is a novel about the O.J. Simpson trial. It sounded weird every time I described it to anyone while reading it, and it sounds no less weird as I write the words right now. I really enjoyed it!

Dominick Dunne used to be a reporter for Vanity Fair. He spent much of his career covering high profile trials for that and other publications. This book is a novel about a character named Gus Bailey who is very closely based on the author himself. Like Dominick Dunne, Gus Bailey typically lives in New York, but moves to L.A. to cover the O.J. Simpson trial. Like Dominick Dunne, Gus Bailey's daughter was murdered by a violent boyfriend several years before the trial. In the novel, Gus Bailey is actually given special privileges to have a seat in the courtroom every day, which is located near the family of Ron Goldman, partly because of his experience as the parent of a murdered child. From that seat, Dunne describes, through Gus's eyes, the workings of the trial.

One of the main features of the book is that Gus Bailey is constantly being invited to functions by famous people where everyone discusses the O.J. Simpson trial. For the most part, this seems like a chance for the author to do some gratuitous name dropping. While the book says plainly that it is a novel, because so much about Gus Bailey's character tracks the author's real life, it's easy to find yourself believing that every conversation Bailey had actually occurred. I found some of these passages a little bit boring. Am I especially interested in what Nancy Reagan or Princess Diana thought about O.J. Simpson? Not really. And even if I were, should I believe that these conversations really took place? It's hard to tell.

However, this structure has one interesting positive aspect. At the beginning, Bailey is telling people that he believes the case is a slam dunk conviction against O.J. The reader "hears" him repeat this to several different people in several different contexts. The listeners, at least those who are not O.J.'s lawyers, are basically in agreement with Bailey. Although I was pretty young when it occurred, I think there was a general consensus in the media before the trial began that O.J. would certainly be found guilty. We can see Bailey, throughout the trial, begin to understand why it's not going to be a slam dunk. He is very focused on the racial dynamics as the reason the case isn't going well  for the prosecution.

I don't know enough about the facts or the dynamics on that jury to know whether it really was an issue of race. The reason that I enjoyed watching the evolution of Gus Bailey's perspective on the matter is because it reminds me just how important it is that people have the right to a trial. A trial, and NOT merely in the media, is the right forum to discover the truth. I think that, even today, the media and its audience are ready to condemn someone quickly. Of course some of these folks are actually guilty. And I know I've engaged in at least the spectator sport of trying to decide whether some infamous defendant is guilty. But this book reminded me that the justice system we have is really important, and we've made the right choice entrusting our decisions about guilt or innocence to that process.

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