Reading Capote

I first knew Truman Capote as caricature of himself—the flamboyant and outrageous guest on late night television, a gigantic personality in an elfin body.  He wore hats, as I recall from those stolen glimpses of Johnny Carson on those rare nights I was up to see him.

He spoke of his “dear, dear friend” so-and-so, shamelessly name-dropping, slow-rolling his southern drawl as he rolled his eyes, this feline, no, catty little man, perched on a famous talk show couch, past his prime and at that point in time, mostly famous for being famous.

As he struggled sometimes to recall the dear, dear friend, Carson would try to help him move things along, tossing out the name of some likely celebrity.

“Oh, no,” Capote would simper.  “He is a dear friend, but not the dear, dear friend I am thinking of.”  This would go on for several minutes, this naming, and claiming and denying. I was in my teens and didn’t quite know what to make of it.  Except that, for all the good-natured banter, he seemed to be an object of subtle ridicule, and that made me sad because I didn’t know who he was or why he was there.

This was before I read his writing, before I was given “A Christmas Memory” to read in Freshman English, before I had heard of “In Cold Blood,” before I was introduced to the classic film, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Before I knew much about anything, really.

Capote  first appeared on my radar screen in high school, when my friend, Patty, read  “In Cold Blood,” his account of a real-life murder in Kansas.  One evening we were at a party, or hanging out somewhere other than her house—which was odd, because she had the best house for lallygagging teenagers and we were there all the time.

She spent a nervous evening calling her home phone to make sure it still worked, or to make sure that there wasn’t a busy signal, or something like that. I can’t remember the specifics now, but it was all rooted in fear because of some passage in the book. Obviously there was some monkey business with the phone that the murderers employed as they went about systematically killing the Clutter family.

The book terrorized her for weeks and I made an conscious decision to never read it.  And I haven’t.

It is perhaps his most famous work, a piece of nonfiction that changed the way sensational stories were covered from then onward.  It may have been the last great thing he wrote.  It made him famous, or more famous, that is certain.  It may have ruined him, that is debated. 

My book group is reading “Other Voices, Other Rooms” for May, and the title alone makes it worth picking up.  It is a novel, but one with strong threads of autobiography, as many of his works share when they are set in the deep south, with a young abandoned boy sent to live with relatives, all of whom are southern gothic as all get out.

Even though the themes can be  familiar from one book to the next, there is something fresh about each story, too.  He was a superb story-teller, vivid and unsentimental.  He must surely have been damaged by his early traumas and abandonment, and even perched on an oversized chair on a television set, he seems small and fragile, a child hanging on to something delicate inside him, delicate but heavy.  A thing easily dropped and shattered.

You might have come across Truman Capote in a literature class.  His story, “A Christmas Memory” is widely taught and anthologized.  It is the story of a small, displaced boy and his eccentric cousin, Miss Sook, who isn’t quite “right,” but then, we suspect, neither is Buddy, this little boy who is more comfortable in the world of misfit adults, than with friends his own age.

He isn’t odd, exactly, but his is different, and it makes us champion him, root for him.  Perhaps it is the unemotional way in which his stories unfold.  Regardless, we help him pull the wagon as he and Miss Sook go around the countryside gathering up pecans, candied fruits and whiskey to make the annual fruitcakes. 

I think I will read all his works this year, in order. I admire his deftness as a writer, his description and detail.  But his characters, ah, his characters.  Those I unlock my heart for, those I simply love. 

And I love him, too, a little bit, and search out some soft ground of understanding to place my foot when I read him. I want to see him as more than a character wrapped up in cheap laughs on a late-night talk show forty years ago, mugging for the camera, but hidden from us, all the same.