Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Nonfiction Novel

In the eyes of some, Truman Capote’s renown as a celebrity outshone his reputation as a writer. Perhaps stronger than his prose was a skill at finding the limelight, too often in ways that did not reflect kindly on his name. For a number of years this very idiosyncratic man allowed his writing to be the shining light of his fame, but later years were not kind and by the time of his death at 59 from liver failure and drug intoxication he had become something of a silly, too often drunk and bitchy character on talk shows and in gossip pages.

During his early years Capote’s output was prolific, producing stories and novels that established him as one of America’s postwar greats. During a time when he was writing for The New Yorker and also searching for a book length subject to write about, Capote discovered an article in the November 16, 1959 edition of the New York Times that captured his interest. It turned out to be the subject he was waiting for and the result was his book In Cold Blood.

The long strain of research and writing that produced the book in 1965 was resolved to some extent by the book’s huge success and the money it brought Capote, but the writer quipped more than once that his intense involvement with the book’s characters almost killed him. Despite that complaint, it brought him literary acclaim and became an international bestseller. Unfortunately for him and readers as well, he never wrote much of importance after In Cold Blood, though his publishers continued to put out collections of earlier stories and essays.

Three weeks ago there was passing mention in these pages of a visit to Barnes & Noble and the purchase of a paperback copy of In Cold Blood. Took a while getting around to, but after reading the first two or three pages it was pretty much non-stop on through the book’s 343 pages. I’ve read in the past a fair sampling of the writer’s work, but not long after starting In Cold Blood my appreciation of Truman Capote was reignited by the glow of his true story ‘fiction.’

In Cold Blood is a true-crime masterpiece based upon the murder of four family members in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas…

‘Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans—in fact, few Kansans—had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there. The inhabitants of the village, numbering two hundred and seventy, were satisfied that this should be so, quite content to exist inside ordinary life—to work, to hunt, to watch television, to attend school socials, choir practices, meetings of the 4-H Club.’

Capote’s goal was to write something he labeled a ‘nonfiction novel.’ In his own words, “I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.” Many would say that this is a perfect description of the book he spent four years writing, and in many ways the book is near perfect, only slipping at times with a shade too much novelization in terms of dialogue, and some obvious omissions in the reporting of facts. Capote often bragged of his perfect recall, his never bothering to take notes during interviews with the people involved, including the two murderers. Later interviews by other writers established that much of Capote’s dialogue was manufactured. Also curious that Capote so assiduously avoided any implication that the two convicted killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith might have been anything other than simple partners in crime. Their interaction, as least in Capote’s telling hints at something else.

Measured against the whole of his achievement these criticisms must, in the end be counted as small beer. In Cold Blood is a stunning recreation of what went on in Holcomb, Kansas on the night of November 15, 1959 and the subsequent pursuit and capture by the FBI of the two murderers. It’s something of a mystery why this book received no major book awards after its publication, but it might be that critics didn’t know quite what category to place the book in—that possibly even a part of the writer’s intention.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, early success at age 22 with OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS and then the crowning success of IN COLD BLOOD. Had the demons of drugs and alcohol and childhood trauma not taken their toll, no telling what he could have produced. And of course there's the often repeated refrain for the last 50 years that he had a large hand in writing TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. If only partly true, then quite another feather in his writing cap.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America