Thursday, August 16, 2012
Balancing Acts of Violence: Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood"
There are two different reasons why I recently read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood: The first reason: my older brother loaned it to me and was anxious to get my opinions on the book, and it turned out we shared the same general thoughts on Capote's writing style. The second, more complex reason: I like to think I read a good variety of writing, from fiction to nonfiction, from older works to contemporary ones. However, there's a fairly large number of "Capital-C Classics" that I haven't yet read. Some of these I'll admit freely: Pride and Prejudice, Native Son, and Slaughterhouse Five are still unchecked. There are other, more glaring omissions that I'll keep private and write about down the road without actually admitting to having not read them before. Of course, every piece of classic literature has its critics. In fact, I wrote this back in February: "[Of Human Bondage] proves the point that every work of art has its detractors, and labels such as 'classic' or 'canon' are not always to be taken seriously, or rather they shouldn't always be assumed." In Cold Blood is sometimes more regarded for the story of its foundation rather than the actual writing. What struck me, weeks after completing it, is how it manages to show how random acts of violence are not a new phenomenon. With the air of the recent Colorado and Wisconsin shootings still heavy, the documentation of the Kansas murders and their aftermath feel sadly and oddly contemporary. Also, such a work might not be possible today. National and social medias make for instantaneous accounts, opinions, and theories within hours of an event's happening. The idea of a writer reading about a work and having near-complete access to the witnesses, citizens, and ultimately the killers seems impossible, since today, were this to happen again, the national media would descend on a small town and report on it to the point of a single reporter being unable to be the primary source.
For anyone who hasn't read the book, the basic outline should be at least somewhat familiar. In 1959, in the town of Holcomb, Kansas, the Clutter family (father Herb, mother Bonnie, and children Kenyon and Nancy) was shot dead with no apparent motive. There were potential signs and suspects, but not until later were the killers (Perry Smith and Dick Hickock) apprehended, tried, and convicted. After reading a brief account of the killings, Truman Capote went to Holcomb and began interviewing citizens and investigating the murders. After Dick and Perry were arrested, he conducted interviews with them, with the primary emphasis being on Perry (leading to still relevant rumors of Capote being infatuated with him). In Cold Blood is referred to as a "true life novel," with fictionalized conversations and accounts mixed in with primary journalistic reporting. Almost any reader can pick up on what's imagined and what's real, and this balance is part of Capote's apparent desire to create a complete picture. This has its pros and cons, however. While there's no doubt or question that years of research went into this book, one has to weigh the consequences of the fictionalized sections. Sometimes this is good, when creating background sketches of the town and the victims. The prose is beautiful, making some of the scenes as vivid as a photograph. Perhaps Capote included too many details, but at times, the book lulls the reader into a sense of calm, even with the murders looming or described.
"The river lay in this direction; near its bank stood a grove of fruit trees--peach, pear, cherry, and apple. Fifty years ago, according to native memory, it would have taken a lumberjack ten minutes to axe all the trees in western Kansas. Even today, only cottonwoods and Chinese elms--perennials with a cactuslike indifference to thirst--are commonly planted. However, as Mr. Clutter often remarked, 'an inch more of rain and this country would be paradise--Eden on earth.' The little collection of fruit-bearers by the river was his attempt to contrive, rain or no, a patch of the paradise, the green, apple-scented Eden, he envisioned (Capote 12-13)."
The travels and interactions of Dick and Perry receive the most embellishments, and again, one has to weigh what is consistently good writing with a wonder of whether Capote was trying to write a true crime account or his own novel of sorts. With so much factual evidence present, there are still many scenes of imagined suspense. Capote knew how to capture an emotional scene, but even without his physical presence in the book, we can imagine his physical act of writing. Since the story behind the writing of In Cold Blood is just as familiar as the work itself, it's hard to not see Capote in the background, so to speak. But sometimes this goes away in suspenseful moments:
"Mountains. Hawks wheeling in a white sky.
When Perry asked Dick, 'Know what I think?' he knew he was beginning a conversation that would displease Dick, and one that, for that matter, he himself would just as soon avoid. He agreed with Dick: Why go on talking about it? But he could not always stop himself. Spells of helplessness occurred, moments when he 'remembered things'--blue light exploding in a black room, the glass eyes of a big toy bear--and when voices, a particular few words, started nagging on his mind: 'Oh, no! Oh, please! No! No! No! No! Don't! Oh, please don't please!' And certain sounds returned--a silver dollar rolling across a floor, boot steps on hardwood stairs, and the sounds of breathing, the gasps, the hysterical inhalations of a man with a severed windpipe (Capote 110)."
Even with intense, gritty passages like these, In Cold Blood's reputation as the first regarded true crime book is slightly misleading. In today's book world, true crime tends to refer to mass market paperbacks detailing the most perverted, grisly acts of sadistic crime imaginable. While the idea of a family being shotgunned to death is shocking and painful, Capote wasn't interested in the details of the crime in order to shock or provoke, but rather as part of the bigger picture. The Clutter family's death created a ripple effect through an otherwise random small town and forever affected the citizens and the investigators. Capote's profile of Kansas investigator Alvin Dewey is again imagined and reported. The reader is given details of his home life and the strain of the investigation, as well as meticulous accounts of how he and the other agents went about trying to find a motive and apprehend the suspects.
"Actually, at this time, on this subject, Dewey was undecided. He still entertained a pair of opinions--or, to use his word, 'concepts'--and, in reconstructing the crime, had developed both a 'single-killer concept' and a 'double-killer concept.' In the former, the murderer was thought to be a friend of the family, or, at any rate, a man with more than casual knowledge of the house and its inhabitants--someone who knew that the doors were seldom locked, that Mr. Clutter slept alone in the master bedroom on the ground floor, that Mrs. Clutter and the children occupied separate bedrooms on the second floor. This person, so Dewey imagined, approached the house on foot, probably around midnight (Capote 81-82)."
Films like Bennett Miller's Capote have examined a potential sexual aspect to Capote's link to Perry Smith. Smith is presented as the more sympathetic of the two, more or less along for the ride, with a rough childhood and a bum leg on top of that (this was my major critique of Capote's writing--Perry's leg is given so many repetitious mentions that it becomes a distraction). Granted, Capote's homosexuality is separate from his writing, but he consistently hints, via language, to something more between Dick and Perry. At the very least, they talk like a married couple, using pet names and having consistent arguments. Reading between the lines, one can't help but wonder what Capote was trying to suggest about their relationship.
"A week in Mexico City, and then he and Dick had driven south--Cuernavaca, Taxco, Acapulco. And it was in Acapulco, in a 'jukebox honky-tonk,' that they had met the hairy-legged and hearty Otto. Dick had 'picked him up.' But the gentleman, a vacationing Hamburg lawyer, 'already had a friend'--a young native Acapulcan who called himself the Cowboy. 'He proved to be a trustworthy person,' Perry once said of the Cowboy. 'Mean as Judas, some ways, but oh, man, a funny boy, a real fast jockey. Dick liked him, too. We got on great (Capote 117-118).'"
In a reading today, this isn't a major deal, but taking Capote's imagined dialogues into account, along with the hints of his attraction to Perry, one can't help but wonder if these pieces are a sort of fantasy on Capote's part. In the 1960s, some readers might have used these hints as "evidence" for their crimes, but coming from a gay writer, the more likely hypothesis is Capote's desire to humanize them, even as murderers. There are more examples and hints of Dick being a rapist and a pedophile, and Capote writes those accounts with a genuine air of disgust. Overall, their sexual makeups are simply part of their personalities; Capote's own life aside, there's also a very real potential for the two men to be engaged in a relationship that wasn't sexual, but merely a need for closeness and understanding before and after the killings.
Despite my earlier reference to the recent shootings in this country, I don't see In Cold Blood as an encompassing study on American violence. It's a much more personal look at the two seemingly random men who got caught up in an escalating, horrifying scenario. However, the reporting aspect is unique. For example's sake, there very well could be a book written in the future on the Colorado theater shooting. But in today's world, that hypothetical book would be just one piece of a larger trail of documentation. Capote read a brief account of the killings in The New York Times, which led to his visiting the town to start his own investigation. Today, there would be countless national news reports, opinion pieces, Tweets, cable news show discussions, and a general avalanche of material from which to draw sources. In this sense, In Cold Blood is almost quaint, despite the subject. The idea of a lone writer being able to encompass all the notes, interviews, and materials by him or herself would be generally impossible today. Also, gun control wasn't an issue at the time--shootings like these happened without national coverage. Rather, In Cold Blood is a sociological look at how a horrific act came about, and how it affected such a close-knit community. Even with Capote's embellishments and repetition, the plots and subplots all tie together without an attempt to forgive or impart explicit opinions. In that sense, it's standard journalism. With the blend of the imagined and the actual, Capote compiles the evidence and lets the reader decide how to interpret it. His own life was so public and fascinating that it's impossible to separate him from his text at times. Even with knowledge of how Capote went about the book, In Cold Blood is a fascinating work that still succeeds on the strength of his writing. As long as there's an understanding of Capote's imagination, readers can accept his fictionalizations, even if this would be impossible for a contemporary writer to pull off.
Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. Copyright 1965 by Truman Capote. Copyright renewed 1993 by Alan U. Schwartz.
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