Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ revisited

The original cover, 1966.

Here’s the evocative, elegiac opening to Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveller reaches them.

This paragraph bears a resemblance to the first paragraph of Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published almost twenty years before, when he was in his early twenties:

Now a traveler must make his way to Noon City by the best means he can, for there are no buses or trains heading in that direction, though six days a week a truck from the Chuberry Turpentine Company collects mail and supplies in the next-door town of Paradise Chapel: occasionally a person bound for Noon City can catch a ride with the driver of the truck, Sam Radclif. It’s a rough trip no matter how you come, for these washboard roads will loosen up even brandnew cars pretty fast; and hitchhikers always find the going bad. Also, this is lonesome country; and here in the swamplike hollows where tiger lilies bloom the size of a man’s head, there are luminous green logs that shine under the dark marsh water like drowned corpses; often the only movement on the landscape is winter smoke winding out the chimney of some sorry-looking farmhouse, or a wing-stiffened bird, silent and arrow-eyed, circling over the black deserted pinewoods.

Whew, three long, flowing, gorgeous sentences. I was rereading Other Voices, Other Rooms even before I assigned my feature writing class this quarter to read the first section of In Cold Blood, still available to anyone on the web site of The New Yorker, which serialized the book in the fall of 1965 (it was published in January 1966).

Like Noon City, Holcomb isn’t only hard to get to and emotionally affecting, it isn’t much to look at: “an aimless congregation of buildings”; “a haphazard hamlet” with “streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved” that “turn from the thickest dust into the direst mud”; a town where “dancing has ceased.” And Holcomb Bank, which “failed in 1933” has been turned into apartments; it doesn’t have any money in its safe, one of my students pointed out, just like the doomed Herbert Clutter, whose throat was cut and his family likewise slaughtered over a rumor of a hidden safe at his farmhouse. All that melancholy setting—those quotes from the second paragraph alone—to also make the point that Holcomb isn’t what it appears: many of its wheat farmers are, like Herb Clutter, wealthy. They are hard-working, sober, law abiding, and into their midst come avatars of another America: down at the heels, broken, and mean.

I didn’t realize, when I uploaded the book’s first act to Blackboard and assigned my students to read it, that it’s about seventy pages. Nor, not having read In Cold Blood for several years, did I remember—if I’d ever noticed—that it is divided into four acts of equal length. The book, which took Capote about six years to write and report, is built. It still creeps me out to read it; I have both my mother’s original hardback and a newer paperback. The latter has a cover tied in to the 2005 movie Capote, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar. I’d seen the movie at least once before, but when I showed it in class, having just read the first act of the book, I was alarmed by the movie’s inventions.

What shot me bolt upright, watching Capote with my students, was this: in the movie, Capote tries desperately to keep the two killers alive on death row by hiring them a good lawyer—because he hasn’t yet gotten their stories of what actually happened in the Clutter house. Then, alive due only to Capote’s self interest, the killer he’s closest to, Perry Smith, doesn’t want to talk about that night. Smith stalls, and Capote resorts to bullying and manipulation. Three-fourths of the way into Capote, Smith finally spills his guts—and now Capote wants him dead, so he can end his book.

As in the movie, In Cold Blood also recreates the murders exactly three-quarters into the story. Structurally it’s a great emphasis point; and it fulfills the writer’s implicit promise, made in the first section when the murders were summarized, to give readers the crime’s gory, harrowing details. But the confession in the book appears to be based solely upon what Smith told investigators, the lead one of whom, Alvin Dewey, had become Capote’s friend.

The bio consulted for the movie 'Capote'

There’s no indication whatsoever that Capote lacked for the killers’ statements. He may have sweetened his third-act climax with details from them, but he had a powerful climax already from their confessions to lawmen alone. And he recreates the crime only in the context of Smith’s formal admission of guilt. The book that the movie flows from, Capote: A Biography, by Gerald Clarke, doesn’t mention this as an issue. It acknowledges the writer’s moral dilemmas in reporting In Cold Blood, while being sympathetic.

Capote prosecutes its own vision; it isn’t a documentary. Maybe I’m the one straining at gnats. But, just maybe, Capote wasn’t tormented to death by In Cold Blood, as Capote has it. Maybe we need to make meanings like that, for sins to be paid, but his decline may simply have been from alcoholism and drugs, self medications for a mortal wound suffered in a sad childhood.

Next: The writer’s moral dilemmas and whether Capote deserves Capote.

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8 Comments

Filed under film/photography, honesty, journalism, syntax, teaching, education

8 responses to “Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ revisited

  1. Very provocative, Richard. Before your next installment, I will read it again.

  2. It reminds me of someone who dismissed Henry James as a confused gay man who did not act on his desires (I don’t even know if that is accurate, but I have heard it said)- the point, for me, is that their work matters not the categories we put around their identities. Many people are drunks or recovering drunks- many of them are ‘better’ (or as good as) than the average person in my limited experience because they can sometimes be more tolerant of others. Jean Rhys drank too much as did Capote, but for me that is the least important thing about them. Of course, their experiences shape their work & their views & their feelings & their writing- but how many drunk people write like them or Bukowski? Having wriiten this, I am aware that I only know how grateful I am for their books and am no expert on writing about writing. Thought-provoking stuff indeed. John.

  3. Richard Gilbert

    Thanks for t his great response, John. Maybe I should adjust the last line of my post: in no way did I mean he was “just” an alcoholic, as such, but that what killed him was “just” inner torment, alcoholism, and drugs, not guilt. I believe his psyche was harmed by his work on In Cold Blood, but not that he was destroyed by selling out the killers.

  4. I don’t often know what kills people or always what makes them carry on either! I wonder if Capote got lonely and that caused or exacerbated problems- I think you have clarified your position very well in what is a very delicate area. Sometimes I have read biographies of people & got upset on their behalf which is quite ridiculous. It is odd what happens to us when we read something- how our response can be far from objective (even though objectivity is an illusion it can be clear when we are further away from it than we should be.) Best wishes (this is a great blog) John.

  5. I can tell you are thinking a lot about structure these days, Richard! I love how carefully you study texts and share them here with your readers.

    I also had an eery feeling that the movie writers and director were straining to make the connection between Capote’s manipulation of the killers and his feelings of guilt and later decline. I didn’t go back to the text to do the research, however.

    Another fine post!

  6. I meant to ask you how you get quoted text to show up in blue. I like the way it looks. I also use WordPress.

    Thanks,

    Shirley

    • Thanks, Shirley. On your first comment, I like to tell my students, with apologies to Raymond Carver: Structure is what writers talk about when they talk about writing. I think it’s true, or should be, if it isn’t!

      On the highlighting, it’s easy: use your cursor to highlight the text in the draft post you want to emphasize, and then go up to the icons and click on the big quote symbols.