Sunday, 17 September 2006

In Cold Blood Penguin edition book coverReview: In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (1966)

As a pioneer of the New Journalism, Capote really did his homework on this book. But while it was both a critical and commercial success, it eventually attracted criticism.

Capote apparently “never took notes during interviews for the book. He claimed he could memorize what people said and recall it with 95 percent accuracy, something he said he had trained himself to do by memorizing names in phone books and passages of books.”

If written today, "In Cold Blood" would not be published without significant changes, [Madeleine] Blais, from the University of Massachusetts, said.

Yet it is a thrilling read.

Nevertheless, the detailed recounting of the journey that the two killers make across the U.S. beggars belief. Many memorable passages, such as when the murderers, Perry and Dick, are on the lam and pick up two down-and-out hitchhikers in Texas, one of whom shows them how to collect recyclable bottles from the highway shoulder, are recounted in such style and with such verve and fictional intimacy that we feel as though we are on the scene. Words, sights, feelings are available to the reader in a way that they generally are in a novel. This ‘nonfiction novel’ was a serious attempt by Capote to forge new ties between fiction and journalism.

"It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,' as I thought of it ... Journalism is the most underestimated, the least explored of literary mediums," Capote said in a 1966 interview with The New York Times.

You can feel his intense interest in his subject at every stage of the book:

Among Garden City’s animals are two grey tomcats who are always together — thin, dirty strays with strange and clever habits. The chief ceremony of their day is performed at twilight. First they trot the length of Main Street, stopping to scrutinise the engine grilles of parked automobiles, particularly those stationed in front of the two hotels, the Windsor and Warren, for these cars, usually the property of travellers from afar, often yield what the bony, methodical creatures are hunting: slaughtered birds — crows, chickadees, and sparrows foolhardy enough to have flown into the path of oncoming motorists. Using their paws as though they were surgical instruments, the cats extract from the grilles every feathery particle.

In a similar way, Capote picks the eyes out of the experiences of the inhabitants of the Kansas towns where the action takes place.

According to the Wikipedia:

Capote learned of the quadruple slaying from a news article in The New York Times. He decided to go to Kansas and write about the murders, even before the killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith, were captured.

The following represents the thoughts of Bobby Rupp, boyfriend of victim Nancy Clutter, who in his bereavement is fondly and sadly remembering more congenial times:

Once Nancy had said to him, 'One summer, when we were in Colorado, I saw where the Arkansas begins. The exact place. You wouldn’t believe it, though. That it was our river. It’s not the same colour. But pure as drinking water. And fast. And full of rocks. Whirlpools. Daddy caught a trout.’ It had stayed with Bobby, her memory of the river’s source, and since her death … Well, he couldn’t explain it, but whenever he looked at the Arkansas, it was for an instant transformed, and what he saw was not a muddy stream meandering across the Kansas plains, but what Nancy had described — a Colorado torrent, a chilly, crystal trout river speeding down a mountain valley. That was how Nancy had been: like a young river — energetic, joyous.

Capote’s success would spur others to emulation. In 1979 Norman Mailer published The Executioner’s Song, about the crimes, arrest and execution of Gary Gilmore, which book he asked his editors to label ‘A True Life Novel’. Critics were ebullient following publication in October 1979. A Pulitzer Prize was awarded on 14 April 1980. Howard Kaminsky of Warner Books recalled: “Norman came in and handed me four black looseleaf binders, each one containing five hundred pages of manuscript triple-spaced. I brought it home that night with great trepidation and started reading. Within half an hour all the weight of anxiety lifted off me and I knew we were home.”

“So you thought of Gilmore at least initially as a commercial property?” asked the critic John W. Aldridge in a 1980 interview. “Well, as I said, yes, I think of commercial possibilities,” replied Mailer. “But obviously, it’s important not to take a book on just because it promises money.”

That’s a bit disingenuous.

But in the same interview he talks about the empathy generated by reading the book. “So I was left at the end of the book with a sense of ambiguity about Gilmore that you can only feel about someone you know very well. … Gilmore was fond of saying that he was a very bad guy, and he was in a lot of ways. He had a lot of very bad, dull habits.” But it is in the detailed imagining of these habits that we get close enough to start to come to terms with Gilmore.

And the same alchemy is evident in In Cold Blood.


cnwb said...

I found your blog whilst Googling for Bookmoochers in Australia. Great stuff. I look forward to future installments. My own Bookmooch profile is here. By the way - how do you search for Australians on Bookmooch? I can't figure it out.

Dean said...

Before they had a way of doing it but it went down. On 3 September I e-mailed John Buckman, the guy who runs BookMooch, and complained. He replied: "Sorry, it's because I'm going on vacation for a month, and it doesn't work quite right and can bring the server down with the bug in it that's there now. It'll be back in 4 weeks."

So, you should be able to search in your own country in about 2 weeks' time.

kimbofo said...

Great review, Dean.

Did you ever see the film 'Capote', starring Philip Seymour Hoffman?

It really brings that book -- and that whole era -- to life. And you get some interesting insights into what made Capote tick.

Dean said...

Unfortunately I didn't. But I want to see it now, having read the book. Usually I'm not much of a cinema-goer, preferring the solitary pursuit of literature. And it costs $15 for a movie these days. And you've got to find parking. Just easier to sit at home on the couch...

kimbofo said...

Oh, I know. In London you're lucky if you pay less than £10, which is about $25!! Conseqently, I go the cinema about once a year. I made a special effort for the Capote film though -- it was definitely worth the effort and expense. I'm sure it's probably available on DVD now...

Meredith said...

I hated that film. I mean, it was a good film, well made & a great story and all that. But I had a love affair with Capote's early writings (Breakfast and Tiffany's, his other short stories) when I was in my early 20s and that film made the object of my affections into some kind of little fat self-obsessed parasitic monster, and not even hugely talented. The biography of Capote by Gerald Clarke seemed much more fair-minded.