Comeuppance

scales-of-justice

So. I’ll bet this has happened to you. You’re driving down the freeway and some jerk suddenly swerves in front of you, making you tap your brake, spill your coffee, and maybe use a word or two that you usually avoid using.

Then the guy’s brake lights blink frantically as he moves one way and then the other behind the car in front of him. He’s a wobbler, maneuvering his way into position, like a cat about to pounce on a bird, so he can slide into the first narrow passage that presents itself. Then he spurts, weaves and bobs along, putting everybody in danger, upsetting everybody, making some of them use some of those words that you’re already regretting.

Then you almost certainly make a wish, or send up a little prayer. You’re not asking that the jerk suddenly become a better human being and a more considerate driver. You’re asking for a policeman to be parked just up ahead, with his radar gun on, aimed, and ready.

You’re asking for the jerk to get what he has coming to him.

You’re wanting a nice little dose of comeuppance.

The desire to see people receive their just desserts is strong in most of us. And good writers and filmmakers know it’s an effective carrot to dangle. Think of the books you’ve read and the movies you’re seen where the main thing that’s kept you interested is the possibility that somebody you’ve come to dislike will have to face the music and pay the fiddler.

Of course, those are books and movies. In reality, the fiddler usually goes unpaid..
What prompted today’s ranting is the fact that I’ve fallen into the clutches of the novelist Dominick Dunne.

As has often been the case, I came late to the party. I bought his final novel, “Too Much Money”, off the discounted sale table at Barnes and Noble three years after his death. I think I paid three bucks for the hardback. I recognized Dunne’s name from the O.J. Simpson trial years ago, when he did interviews on various network news shows and wrote a regular column in Vanity Fair magazine.

I liked the book, and ordered several of his other novels, the best of which was “A Season in Purgatory”, the story based on an actual case of a rich Connecticut family that pulls every string they can to assure an acquittal for their son who assaulted and murdered a teenaged girl.

Dunne was a gifted author with a strong voice, but what really pulled me along though that good book was a gnawing hunger for comeuppance. I wanted that smug family to get their noses rubbed in it. I wanted that arrogant young man who considered himself above the law to finally run directly into it like a brick wall.

Two more Dunne books – “Another City, Not My Own” and “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles” – convinced me that the author must have had a personal ax to grind. So I did some research.

It turns out his daughter, the young actress Dominique Dunne – she played the older daughter in the film “Poltergeist” – was savagely murdered by her boyfriend in 1982. The trial was obviously a gigantic miscarriage of justice and the killer, who admitted to having done the deed, served less than two years in prison.

After that the need to speak out against a system where haughty people who feel such a sense of entitlement that they can sidestep justice completely became Dominick Dunne’s passion in life. And it became the driving force in his writing.

I’ve felt that anger myself on occasion, and not just when some yahoo cuts me off on the freeway. But I’ve never pondered it longer or more deeply than when reading Mr. Donne’s books. Which might prove that he made his point, and managed to leave something of the legacy that he probably intended.

It would be nice to think that a natural system of justice is at work in the world, where retribution automatically follows wrongdoing. Like the Furies in mythology, whose job it was to seek out wrongdoers and drag them off to their deserved punishment without any need for courts, juries, or lawyers. Not vigilantism, mind you, which is just another brand of evil, but a pure, unbiased measure of justice.

But let’s face it. The chances of that happening are right up there with that policeman actually being there waiting for the wobbling jerk that made you spill your coffee and say those bad words.

(This was originally a newspaper article)

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