Sunday, December 03, 2006

Nonfiction Poetry

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, Read by Scott Brick, Random House Audio, 2006

I generally try to read the book before I see the movie. And even though I knew the film Capote dealt a good deal with his experiences writing In Cold Blood, I still watched it prior to reading the work, hoping it wouldn’t give too much away. (To be quite frank, it did.)

One of the surprising things to me, though, was that I kept expecting the author to make his presence felt in the narrative. To see Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote’s legendary oversized personality, I half expected the account of the Clutter slayings to be filled with asides all about the author. Yet that never happens, which seems a remarkable restraint going by the cinematic account. That Capote became such an integral part of the story is without a doubt, yet the book barely features a ghost of him, a faint glimmer of his presence, elusive.

The film also portrays the two killers Richard “Dick” Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith as hiding the secret throughout the trial that it was Perry who did all of the killings. The book, however, suggests pretty evidently that even though Perry at first claimed Dick killed the women, it truly was he who did it all. Whether the suspense was set up as part of the face-to-face revelation Capote seeks from Perry or Perry’s reluctance based on a kind of crush he might have had on Truman is hard to exactly say. Knowing what I know now from reading the book, I’d want to go back and revisit the film to see if there are more telling hints overlooked.

As a true crime account of the murder of the Clutter family, though, In Cold Blood is such a model of eloquent storytelling that it transcends its genre in a way few books of that type ever do. Even though Capote revolutionized journalism with the style of writing, described by him as a nonfiction novel, the ubiquity of this new style these days makes the charged shock of his writing less obvious. Novelistic treatment of true events is a mainstay of nonfiction writing these days regardless of subject matter.

In Cold Blood, though, still remains an astonishing poetic achievement the likes of which are rarely even attempted by other practitioners in the field. The fashion for novelistic treatments may have calcified into its own genre at this point, yet the danger of fashionable writing is that once the fashion has either passed or been assimilated, the novelty effect no longer sustains weak writing, no longer props up flash in the pan style.

Thankfully, Capote’s writing has none of those all too obvious weaknesses that date themselves almost within a year of publication. Removing the glamour of the novel (and the novelist), what we are left with is a rather straightforward, though lyrical, portrait of a small town, a troubled family, two criminals, and the collision of these elements. In the early chapters of the book, we move back and forth between all of these parts as they move ever closer to the inexorable, already known conclusion. The effect is surprisingly suspenseful and tense. You almost feel the urge to alert someone, to talk the criminals out of their plan, to derail everything.

And yet, as told later, despite the general ambivalence on both sides between Capote and the town’s populace, the total different world views, Capote manages to tell a story that is homespun without city pretensions. It has a kind of starkness in its beauty, a flat telling, as flat as the Kansan skyline, the author really inhabiting the skins of the residents of Holcomb, Kansas.

So when Capote’s writing lends itself to the metaphoric, it retains a concrete and recognizable quality that could be equally appreciated in Greenwich Village as much as in Dogpatch. When he describes the oddness of Perry Smith’s appearance, Capote writes:

…his face… seemed composed of mismatched parts. It was as though his head had been halved like an apple and put together a fraction off-center. Something of the kind had happened. The imperfectly aligned features were the outcome of a car collision in 1950.

And when he recounts the hidden something dark in Perry’s nature, Capote warns of the “bitter sediment at the bottom of his nature.” These references are clear without over simplicity and beautiful without seeming artsy-fartsy. And what’s astonishing is how frequently Capote seeds the page with just such understated beauty of the kind you almost don’t recognize until you feel yourself grimly smiling with the description’s aptness.

At the same time Capote’s writing never lets the poetic get in the way of the prosaic duty of reporting facts. It is bleakly touching when he observes that the night before she dies, Nancy Clutter, the daughter, sets out her best dress to wear for a function the next day. Capote follows this action by stating evenly, “It was the dress she’d be buried in.” The deflated awful truth of that arrests you, drives home the horrible finality of the family’s deaths. The story, too, is filled with unintentional ironies like that, such as Herb Clutter for the first time signing a life insurance policy the very day that he is killed.

And although there is poetry, there is a great deal of suspense built up in Capote’s telling. There are times when the police seem so far from catching Dick and Perry that it is actually possible to believe they won’t get caught. You know they will be, but how it comes about you can’t imagine. When the murderous pair make it to Mexico City, it seems rather impossible to conceive they would willingly move in a way to put them at risk. But as sure as anything, they blow all their money and head back to the US. Then, just as Perry feared, the one possible lead that would stitch things up tight arrives just in time. Thus the investigation turns into a specific manhunt, and Capote delivers the cat and mouse of it with a breathless aplomb.

Of all the books I’ve listened to read by Scott Brick, I think this may be his bravura performance. You really have to hear how brilliantly he slips in and out of so many shades of Midwestern accents that at times it’s almost too hard to imagine only one person reading. And he’s just as excellent in the book’s many long narrative passages, performing with a discriminating manner of never upstaging the work itself. In this way, the characters rise to the surface like shadows in a darkened room.

No comments: