Literature Society: Surviving Agent Orange by Gretchen Bonaduce
Some books I read for Nathan Rabin’s Literature Society because they have legitimate artistic and cultural value, like Mayte Garcia’s lovely remembrance of her life with Prince. And sometimes I’ll read a book precisely because it has no value whatsoever, literary, moral or otherwise. I’m thinking about morbidly fascinating exercises in epic literary self-delusion like Dr. Conrad “Thriller Killer” Murray’s surreally unselfconscious This Is It!, which is all about how there’s so much more to him than maybe killing Michael Jackson and when you think about it, isn’t Murray a greater and more important figure than Jackson? I mean, all that Jackson guy did was sing and dance. Murray was a doctor!
Sometimes, dear reader, I read a book for Literature Society simply because it’s there. I’ll be looking for something to distract the voices inside my head screaming that I’m a failure and will die forgotten and unloved and then voila, I’ll spot a book that promises to temporarily make me forget my troubles by focussing on the mistakes, dysfunction and self-sabotage of others.
Gretchen Bonaduce’s Surviving Agent Orange is the last kind of Literature Society entry. I could tell you that I chose it because as a lonely, television-addicted boy I watched a lot of Partridge Family reruns and consequently am familiar with Danny Bonaduce's youthful triumph, which defined him, for better but primarily for worse, to the point where in at least one radio gig chronicled here (they all tend to blur together) he was forced to adopt “Danny Partridge” as his on-air moniker. It’s enough to make a guy hulk out on steroids, smoke crack and regularly make tabloid headlines for all the wrong reasons.
I could also say that I’m a sucker for tell-alls by ex-wives of bad boys and big shots, which is also true. Lastly, I could explain my interest in this most disposable, least essential of show business tells alls by saying that it’s a veritable Venn Diagram of my morbid literary interests: D-list celebrity, former child stars, sex and drug addiction, narcissism and the weird intimacy radio DJs share with their listeners. and the world But the truth of the matter is that I read this pretty much exclusively because it was lying around my condo, looking all short and trashy and whatnot and I am a weak man so I could not resist its tawdry appeal, even as I found myself thinking, “Why am I even reading this? I’m not enjoying it, nor am I learning anything from it. It’s just something for me to look at and not think about.”
Yet I plowed through all the same, driven by a very Midwestern stubbornness and determination to get something out of any experience, no matter how masochistic. The book opens with an introduction in which fellow reality television veteran and ex-wife of a former child star Adrienne Curry enthuses about how the author is pretty much the best person she knows, and is the kind of real friend who will straight up help you move, and how many people are gonna do that post-college? I agree that helping people move is a mark of true character but you need more than that to write a compelling memoir.
Gretchen’s whirlwind courtship and marriage to the steroid-and-sex-crazed redhead was the stuff of tabloid dreams: the inexperienced aspiring singer and comedian/actor/DJ got hitched, after a fashion, on their first date, a mere matter of hours into their relationship. Gretchen wasn't ‘going to have sex with Danny, who counted “sex” among his many addictions, unless they got married, and not being a patient man, Danny decided to marry the author first, and then get to know her afterwards.
Early in the couple’s relationship, Bonaduce made tabloid headlines once again for robbing and assaulting a transvestite prostitute, a warning sign that their marriage was not going to be free of tumult.
Gretchen doesn’t seem to know exactly what happened the night the future father of her two children was arrested for beating up a sex worker. Sometimes she tries to laugh it off as the kind of zany shenanigans her husband got up to thanks to his various addictions and compulsions, at one point dismissing it as a “date with a prostitute” but she also understandably and rightly holds it against Danny and points to it throughout as proof of her loyalty and devotion to Danny despite the gauntlet of mistreatment he subjected her to, some of it very public.
Surviving Agent Orange is a curious tell all in that it runs less than two hundred pages (another reason I read it; it’s snack food, not a literary meal) and only about half of those are about her relationship with Bonaduce. The book has the conversational, chatty feel of a late night conversation over red wine with someone who has led a very interesting life, and loves to gossip and talk about herself but whose stories have a frustrating way of jumping around in time and place and not really going anywhere or having a point.
Part of the problem lies in Danny being elsewhere for most of the book. The portrait that emerges of him here is disappointingly vague and distant. For most of the book he’s away working at a series of demanding and exhausting radio gigs throughout our intermittently great nation or cheating on his wife with a series of mistresses, the most important of whom the author dubbed “9021Ho” after Danny moves her down the street to facilitate smoother adultery.
Gretchen’s memoir only begins to realize its enormous potential for dirt in a final third where her always troubled marriage to Danny reaches a dispiriting endgame captured for posterity by the voyeuristic, leering, sensationalism-hungry cameras of their controversial reality show Breaking Bonaduce, which chronicled, among other things, Danny’s contention that he was forced to cheat on his wife because of her low sex drive, Danny’s steroid addiction and the violent mood swings that accompanied it and a stint in rehab.
The Partridge Family child star really only comes into focus when he’s being over-the-top in his monstrousness and callousness, whether that means telling a stranger in Amsterdam that he lives for fucking his mistress (his exact words are “So, this is my wife, and my girlfriend lives just down the street from us, and all I want to do is fuck her!”) or telling her he'd decided to honor their marriage by getting a wedding band tattoo without telling her, for obvious reasons, that his mistress got the exact same matching wedding band tattoo.
Despite Breaking Bonaduce playing a large role in the break-up of her marriage, and the toxic role child stardom played in her ex-husband’s life, she doesn’t seem to have thought twice about pitching a child actor-based reality competition or having her own progeny enter the business.
Post-Danny, the author ends up on Gimme My Reality Show, a reality show competition in which various C-list celebrities compete to get their own reality show and finds herself in the finals facing off against mean girl and Baywatch vixen Traci Bingham and Kato Kaetlin, about whom she writes, “Since I had gotten to know Kato during the taping of the show, I felt sorry for him with all his bad showbiz breaks. Apparently he had been up for one of the main rolls (sic) in the movie Dumb and Dumber. The week they were going to announce the actor who had been cast, OJ decided to kill his wife. Because of all the bad publicity on the case, Kato believed he lost the part because of it. I felt bad for him, and thought I’d be just as happy if he won and got a break.”
She ends up winning a reality show based on competing on a different reality show, but her Warholian quasi-triumph is short lived, as her vehicle, Re-Inventing Bonaduce, did not make it beyond a single season.
I will give Surviving Agent Orange this: it did sufficiently distract me from contemplating life’s inexorable horror for a couple of hours in the same way binging on the reality shows Southern Charm and 90 Day Fiance: Happily Ever After? did. Considering that Bonaduce seems to have found her medium in reality television, she might take that as a compliment. This is literary junk food, reality television in memoir form. There’s definitely value in that but it’s rare that I ever read a book and feel like I’ve gotten nothing out of the experience beyond being momentarily diverted by someone else’s woes, and I’m not sure I got anything out of this beyond not thinking about Donald Trump or how prohibitively difficult it is becoming to make a living as a pop culture writer for a little bit.
So, you know, it’s got that going for it, which isn’t too bad.
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