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Reading Truman Capote

Tap-Dancing Across Genres – 

When a part of my bookshelf came off its hinges, I emptied the shelf, removed it from the wall and put a picture in its place. Looking at the odd assortment of books on the floor, I endeavored to expand the project. Soon great stacks had to be negotiated in order to move from one end of the room to another. It was during the weeding out process (antiquated nonfiction like the Encyclopedia Britannica, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, texts on economics, perennial gardens and human health were to be boxed and donated ) that I came across In Cold Blood.  I had always meant to read In Cold Blood, but I was afraid of the material. Scary stuff, I thought. My edition was hardbound and dusty, the paper book sleeve yellowed and brittle, and the possibility of nightmares notwithstanding, the time was right.

Whether in a bookstore, public library or standing at my own book shelf, I always remember those first few minutes with a book – how it came into my hands.  And generally, after the first paragraph, I agree to see the work through and do my best to bring to it as much as it promises to bring me. I read In Cold Blood during my lunch hour. The quietest place I could find was my car, so every morning I would circle the subterranean garage for a spot under a light.  Secret and private, the garage was a good setting.

It seems there are at least three camps of Truman Capote readers. Those who have only read In Cold Blood, those who have read a selection of material including In Cold Blood, and those who have read some Capote but not In Cold Blood. I was in camp number three. Being apprehensive, I was relieved by the book’s structure. It assured me there would be no trickery and no surprises. There are four sections: The Last to See Them Alive, Persons Unknown, Answer, and The Corner. Page three tells you that four shotgun blasts ended six lives. It is straightforward writing. The complexities unravel as we alternately weave through the psychological portraits of all the characters. A gruesome tale, no doubt, but it is astounding how the writer, with even pacing and dogged persistence, reveals these people in all of their dimensions.

The details of Mrs. Clutter’s vulnerability are heart stopping.  One viewpoint is when she is at home with a local village girl and she asks, “Do you like miniature things?  Tiny things?” and upon showing the girl the ‘assorted Lilliputian gewgaws – scissors, thimbles, crystal flower baskets, toy figurines, forks and knives’, some of which she has had since childhood, she says that Mr. Clutter travels a great deal and that  it sometimes seems like he’s never home. She explains that little things really belong to you, that they don’t have to be left behind, you can carry them in a shoebox wherever you go. Ironically, it is Perry Smith’s large cardboard box shipped from Mexico to Nevada that contains the things he could not leave behind, including the evidence needed to convict him and Richard Hickock – two pairs of steel-buckled boots.

The murder of the Clutter family is both incomprehensible and believable. From Perry Smith’s childhood misery and neglect to his nearly split adult personality, we find a human being with only a vague sense of morality. “I think there must be something wrong with us. To do what we did”, he says to Dick. “There’s got to be something wrong with somebody who’d do a thing like that.”

Regardless of the genre, non-fiction novel, novella, short story or reportage, Capote captures raw human behavior from its most violent to the endearing and spiritual. In a short story called A Thanksgiving Visitor, the second grader, Buddy, of his nemesis Odd Henderson says, “the jealousy charging through me had enough power to electrocute a murderer. Murder was what I had in mind; I would have killed him as easily as swat a mosquito.  Easier.”  And from the same story, a portrayal of grace much along the lines of Mrs. Clutter and her curio collection, this time in the description of the protagonist’s aunt, Ms. Sook.  “Her distinguished face, with its delicate and clumsy features and beautiful, youthful eyes, bespoke a fortitude that suggested it was more the reward of an interior spiritual shine than the visible surface of mere mortal health.”

The works consistently talk about human frailty, neglect, cruelty, and often the resultant blurred ethics. Capote tells us we are not any one finite personality, but several at the same time. In Nocturnal Turnings, or How Siamese Twins Have Sex, there are only two characters; they bear the same initials as the author and negotiate insomnia, boredom, candor and truth. The story is partially the construction of a self interview and the questions include:

“What frightens you?”

“What can you do?”

“What are some things you can’t do?”

“Do you consider conversation an art?”

“Do you believe in God?”

This last question elicits the exasperation of the Siamese twin, TC, who does not believe the question was answered. TC responds, “It’s not that simple.  I did believe in God.  And then I didn’t.” However, god would help, if asked, he says.

“TC:  And has He?

TC:  Yes, More and more. But I’m not a saint yet.  I’m an alcoholic.  I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius. Of course, I could be all four of these dubious things and still be a saint. But I shonuf ain’t no saint yet, nawsuh.”

Reading the work of any great writer reaffirms what writers know.  Writing is not for the meek, timid or lazy of mind.  Writing is for the uncompromising.  Writing is a monkey on your back. In Capote’s preface to Music for Chameleons, he says it beautifully. “When God hands you a gift he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.  ….It was a lot of fun [writing] at first.  It stopped being fun when I discovered the difference between good writing and bad, and then made an even more alarming discovery: the difference between very good writing and true art; it is subtle, but savage. And after that, the whip came down!”


  1. Susan Martin says:

    I too just read In Cold Blood but for the 2nd time. The first was when the book was first published. I thought I had read everything that TC wrote. Your final quote of his I do not recall reading. Thank you. I loved your piece about you and TC. Thank you.

  2. Nancy Vinicor says:

    Almost pressing “delete” – what on earth is TQ – In Contact? – I caught a glimpse of light and then spotted Melanie’s name. A conversation we’d recently had about Capote; I read on and was delighted… you are one damned good writer.

  3. Enjoyed the essay and realized I haven’t read any Capote. Will probably start with smaller things, like “How Siamese Twins….”

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