a prairie gothic paraphrased — Truman Capote’s (& Harper Lee’s?) In Cold Blood

image found here
image found here

[CN: Violence, rape, g*psy mention, spoilers]

“Nonfiction novel” is probably as oxymoronic a concept as “creative nonfiction” is a redundant one. IN COLD BLOOD is a paradigmatic text for true crime and for that particular brand of literature that we are meant to take as based on reporting, but makes use of literary techniques such as nonlinear narrative. A dirty confession: nonfiction is my vocation of choice, and ive always had a quasi-inferiority complex about it. Here i am spinning a narrative that is hopefully well-written, interesting, and populated with compelling characters. But it must be firmly based in my research, and a fiction writer can do just about the same thing only making it all up! Sometimes the truth claim of the genre feels like a safety net for me: im not supposed to make anything up, which is a relief since whenever i have tried to write fiction i cant even convince myself. On the other hand, there’s a reason why “based on a true story” has been applied to so many mainstream books and films, even with great strain. There is a discrete interest in literature based on facts.

Nonfiction books and documentary films strike me as uncharted territory even to this day, not in the sense of a glorious new frontier, but rather a space littered with mines left over from a long-forgotten conflict whose exact locations no body really knows. So the nonfiction that compels me the most takes a self-reflexive tack, asking among its particular inquiries: where do you draw the line between historical fact and the literary techniques of emplotment and fabulation that create myth? And what can we really know, anyway? What is “creative nonfiction?” “True stories well told,” according to the journal, but that might only push the question back a step and split it in two. Where might the imperative of telling the story well overcome that to keep the story true?

No question, ICB is well told. Some passages are just exquisite; the story is bookended with an image of wheat stalks swaying in a prairie wind. But this strikes me as a case where “creative” has overwhelmed “true.” One contemporary reviewer remarks that Capote

took no notes while interviewing, and nothing was taped; instead, he listened, and thereby won extraordinarily candid accounts.

Damn. John McPhee has said that he doesn’t use a recorder and can write down everything his subject is saying almost verbatim. Maybe Capote was a memory wizard, but transcribing in one’s head has never struck me as conceivable non-fiction practice.

This is what im getting at with my campy title. The book uses quotations in a way that is supposed to convey verisimilitude, and they are creatively used to be sure, but they also manipulate the facts that goes well beyond “telling it slant,” to borrow from Emily Dickinson. Here Capote describes Nancy Clutter, soon to be a victim of Perry Smith’s and Dick Hickock’s brutal slaying of this well-to-do Kansas ranch family:

Where she found the time, and still managed to practically run that big house and be a straight-A student, the president of her class, a leader in the 4-H program and the Young Methodists League, a skilled rider, an excellent musician (piano, clarinet), an annual winner at the county fair (pastry, preserves, needlework, flower arrangement) – how a girl not yet seventeen could haul such a wagonload, and do so without “brag,” with, rather, merely a radiant jauntiness, was an enigma the community pondered, and solved by saying, “She’s got character. Gets it from her old man.”

It’s just one example of quotes used without an attribution. Like any genre, nonfiction has a contract with the reader. Granted that rules are meant to be broken, there is one term with non-fiction that is rather important: that quotations are always true — you dont want to be accused of misquoting, no matter what your experimental ambitions. But the narrator sprinkles quotes thru the text, sometimes it’s easy to tell where they came from, but other times they remain totally anonymous. i scanned a book by Ralph Voss, Truman Capote and the Legacy of “In Cold Blood”, and the author looks at some of these quotes and checks them against the massive archive of notes Capote and Harper Lee took for the project. And indeed, a description of Herb, the Clutter clan patriarch, as a fearless man which originally come from a local schoolteacher is put into the mouth of Japanese neighbor X, among other adjustments.

But another example is a great scene between Bonnie Clutter, a wife long suffering from mental illness, and one of Nancy’s friends. As this bit plays out we get intimate details and bits of dialog, crosscut with paragraphs detailing Bonnie’s struggle with what strikes me as clinical depression. The only way Capote could’ve accessed this historical moment is thru interviews with that friend. But the omniscient narrator effaces the source of the material (and again Voss notes some creative liberties taken, some killer narrative details added). The creative license is especially prevalent with the townsfolk of Holcomb. It seems to me that by using unattributed quotes, the text emphasizes the collectivity of this small community, made of simple folks with ordinary values.

The only truly round character in the story is Perry Smith. We are filled in on his childhood, an aching narrative of abuse and neglect that goes well into adulthood. He’s a murderer, he’s sensitive, he spins a boastful lie about killing a black man, he has a voracious cultural appetite despite no access to an education. He has contradictions and complexities, which are dramatized to a high pitch when we see what he goes thru during the moment of Nancy’s murder. The narrator invests more into Smith than any other person on the stage; even popping in letters and statements from family and doctors which appear to be quoted in full. The flattening of the people of Holcomb to further emphasize the roundness of Smith betrays Capote’s intense interest in this man; there’s a tenderness in his physical descriptions, with small feet that could fit in a lady’s shoes, and his face:

It was a change-face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful; a tilt of the head, a twist of the lips, and the corrupt gypsy became the gentle romantic.

There are details peppered in his scenes that cast him as womanish. He’s the “wife” in the dynamic with his partner in crime and barely-coded object of gay desire Dick Hickcock, the latter nearly says as much near the end. He also has “perfume and oily hair.” Laying bare the homosexual element would be unacceptable for a blockbuster like ICB, but Perry and Dick ask themselves more than once why they are staying together when it would probably make more sense to split up, or even kill the other, one witness fewer and all that. Perry’s neediness for Dick’s companionship is the a plausible explanation, and it also has a lot to bear on a critical and exploitive moment in the climax, when we find out what really went down in the Clutter household that night, involving Dick’s open intentions to rape Nancy.

And there’s a great bit where Perry and Smith, on the run in Mexico, “pick up” a rich German tourist and hang out on his fishing boat, complete with nude drawings.

Speculation aside (for now) it’s these details that make Perry’s story the most memorable component in the book. The reader might even dare to sympathize with this man; see him as a victim in his own way, of poverty and sheer bad luck with “old man Trouble.” The big project (if “agenda” is too pejorative a word) woven thru this text is the argument that Perry (and Hick tho he’s a miserable sonofabitch) didn’t deserve to be murdered by the state. i certainly dont have a problem with that. However Voss observes that the psychological bent towards exonerating Perry, that due to a lifetime of trauma he was acting out in a way that his consciousness couldn’t account for when he did these grisly killings, is at odds with the gay subtext (Perry was acting out a jealous rage against Dick, although this is buttressed with a righteous anger towards his pedophilia).

i should reiterate that i dont bring this up bc im looking for reasons to trash this work, bc i enjoyed it immensely. It’s thrilling and the images and observations, whatever extent they are true, are wonderfully realized and i wont forget them for a while. But i was disciplined as an historian and that’s where my writing skills were honed. In my own work, im really, really, committed to getting it right, more than spinning a spectacular, sensational yarn. As of this blog im still way more scared of being accused of plagiarism or misquoting than i am of of being boring.

Now, Harper Lee.

From the abstract of a 2012 dissertation:

Capote admitted his childhood friend, Harper Lee, accompanied him to Kansas as his research assistant, but he never explained in detail what she did to assist him other than to say she accompanied him on interviews. However, once the book was published, her name never appeared in the acknowledgement page of the book. Capote allowed people to believe that Lee was only in Kansas with him two months and she never returned during the five years he was there to conduct research. It is true that Lee was in Kansas the first few months with Capote; however, she returned to assist him with research at Hickock’s and Smith’s arraignment, and she returned to Kansas many other times. However, Capote never revealed this information or Lee’s major role in the research for In Cold Blood. It was not until the publication of Charles Shields’ unauthorized biography of Lee, Mockingbird (2006), the world began to understand Lee’s research conducted for In Cold Blood. […] one can see that Lee conducted a majority of the interviews with the townspeople, while Capote focused primarily on Smith and Hickock.

im a junkie for conspiracy theories, and the one opened by this research is way more interesting (and conceivable) than the one in which Capote ghostwrote TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

i should address the third person narration. It certainly helps to make the story well told. But it also consolidates the author’s power in the manipulation and wielding of the material. The reader is put in a neutral, safe position, where we can probe even the most intimate spaces of the characters, from Nancy’s room at midnight to even a detective’s dream! But we might also wonder how exactly did Capote find this information. From his extensive interviews of course, but certainly there were other options in writing it out, perhaps quoting extensively from the detective’s description of his dream, or from folx who actually witness the scenes that occurred. But then Capote apparently thought he could tell it better (this sound bitterly unkind but i dont mean it that way, s2g.) Some might say the way Capote disappears from the narrative is a self-less act of generosity, that using the first person would be too self-centered, “narcissistic.” i feel differently — maybe having the narrator invisible all the more emphasizes the containment of the characters and ourselves as readers experiencing a sensationalized historical event; and that retaining a pov would have sustained the subjectivity of the author and allowed for more generosity (i think of family memoirs like Spiegelman’s MAUS.)

There are lots of tiny quotes used around slang terms, especially with the Perry and Dick scenes. Perhaps these serve a further distancing of the author from his subjects, refusing ownership of the rough ‘n’ ready vernacular of these characters. Sure we could deride Capote as some snobby cosmopolitan gay New Yorker coming down to report on some prairiebillies. But this seems to have been written from the beginning to be a mainstream hit — perhaps this whole omniscient strategy is what made the text so palatable to the mainstream reading pubic (compare to other contemporary gay writers like, say, William Burroughs).

Like i said above, the narration is a consolidation of the author’s author-ity over the material (and both words trace back to the old French word for Father.) But the contributions of Harper Lee are exciting to me bc they throw the stability of the author as a concept in for a loop.

We dont necessarily even have to go down the poststructuralist rabbit hole and declare the author dead and all texts merely linguistic systems (although we could!). i remember a fascinating article i read as an undergrad which depicted some research done on the older historians of the Enlightenment and Romantic era. These were bourgeois men who of course hold sole authorship of their texts. But research revealed that their wives contributed a ton of labor, from typing to actual writing and original research.

All this on top of cooking, cleaning, and rearing the kids.

The best part of these “controversies” is how they might have us re-think the concept of the author, the author’s property, and the value of labor across the gender line — important stuff, no?

It was extremely hard to choose an excerpt. im doubtful about Capote’s claim that “every word” of the book is true, but his other claim that taking one word out would unravel the whole text is a bit more true. It is a taught narrative, and there were many moments that i wanted to pick but seemed to diminish when taken out of context. i settled on this scene, with Perry waiting anxiously at a laundromat for Dick’s return from passing bad checks to raise more dough (womanish work vs. the breadwinner). Everything is vividly depicted, the paranoia, the chronic pain from an old injury, the memories of grinding poverty.

(Stay tuned for a forthcoming theory post on how Harper Lee is Thomas Pynchon.)


IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote

It was early, not yet nine, and Perry was the first customer at the Washateria, a self- service laundry. He opened his fat straw suitcase, extracted a wad of briefs and socks and shirts (some his, some Dick’s), tossed them into a washer, and fed the machine a lead slug – one of many bought in Mexico.

Perry was well acquainted with the workings of such emporiums, having often patronized them, and happily, since usually he found it “so relaxing” to sit quietly and watch clothes get clean. Not today. He was too apprehensive. Despite his warnings, Dick had won out. Here they were, back in Kansas City – dead broke, to boot, and driving a stolen car! All night they had raced the Iowa Chevrolet through thick rain, stopping twice to siphon gas, both times from vehicles parked on the empty streets of small sleeping towns. (This was Perry’s job, one at which he judged himself “absolutely tops. Just a short piece of rubber hose, that’s my cross-country credit card.”) On reaching Kansas City at sunrise, the travelers had gone first to the airport, where in the men’s lavatory they washed and shaved and brushed their teeth; two hours later, after a nap in the airport lounge, they returned to the city. It was then that Dick had dropped his partner at the Washateria, promising to come back for him within the hour.

When the laundry was clean and dry, Perry repacked the suit-case. It was past ten. Dick, supposedly off somewhere “hanging paper,” was overdue. He sat down to wait, choosing a bench on which, an arm’s length away, a woman’s purse rested – tempting him to snake his hand around inside it. But the appearance of its owner, the burliest of several women now employing the establishment’s facilities, deterred him. Once, when he was a running-wild child in San Francisco, he and a “Chink kid” (Tommy Chan? Tommy Lee?) had worked together as a “purse-snatching team.” It amused Perry – cheered him up – to remember some of their escapades. “Like one time we sneaked up on an old lady, really old, and Tommy grabbed her handbag, but she wouldn’t let go, she was a regular tiger. The harder he tugged one way, the harder she tugged the other. Then she saw me, and said, ‘Help me! Help me!’ and I said, ‘Hell, lady, I’m helping him? – and I bopped her good. Put her on the pavement. Ninety cents was all we got – I remember exactly. We went to a Chink restaurant and ate ourselves under the table.”

Things hadn’t changed much. Perry was twenty-odd years older and a hundred pounds heavier, and yet his material situation had improved not at all. He was still (and wasn’t it incredible, a person of his intelligence, his talents?) an urchin dependent, so to say, on stolen coins.

A clock on the wall kept catching his eye. At half past ten he began to worry; by eleven his legs were pulsing with pain, which was always, with him, a sign of approaching panic – “bubbles in my blood.” He ate an aspirin, and tried to blot out – blur, at least – the brilliantly vivid cavalcade gliding across his mind, a procession of dire visions: Dick in the hands of the law, perhaps arrested while writing a phony check, or for committing a minor traffic violation (and found to be driving a “hot” car). Very likely, at this very instant Dick sat trapped inside a circle of red-necked detectives. And they weren’t discussing trivialities – bad checks or stolen automobiles. Murder, that was the topic, for somehow the connection that Dick had been so certain no one could make had been made. And right now a carload of Kansas City police were on their way to the Washateria.

But, no, he was imagining too much. Dick would never do that – “spill his guts.” Think of how often he had heard him say, “They can beat me blind, I’ll never tell them anything.” Of course, Dick was a “blowhard”; his toughness, as Perry had come to know, existed solely in situations where he unarguably had the upper hand. Suddenly, gratefully, he thought of a less desperate reason for Dick’s prolonged absence. He’d gone to visit his parents. A risky thing to do, but Dick was “devoted” to them, or claimed to be, and last night during the long rainy ride he had told Perry, “I’d sure like to see my folks. They wouldn’t mention it. I mean, they wouldn’t tell the parole officer – do anything to get us into trouble. Only I’m ashamed to. I’m afraid of what my mother would say. About the checks. And going off like we did. But I wish I could call them, hear how they are.” However, that was not possible, for the Hickock home was without a telephone; otherwise, Perry would have rung up to see if Dick was there.

Another few minutes, and he was again convinced that Dick was under arrest. His leg pains flared up, flashed through his body, and the laundry odors, the steamy stench, all at once sickened him, picked him up and propelled him out the door. He stood at the curb retching like “a drunk with the dry heaves.” Kansas City! Hadn’t he known Kansas City was bad luck, and begged Dick to keep away? Now, maybe now, Dick was sorry he hadn’t listened. And he wondered: But what about me, “with a dime or two and a bunch of lead slugs in my pocket”? Where could he go? Who would help him? Bobo? Fat chance! But her husband might. If Fred Johnson had followed his own inclination, he would have guaranteed employment for Perry after he left prison, thus helping him obtain a parole. But Bobo wouldn’t permit it; she had said it would only lead to trouble, and possibly danger. Then she had written to Perry to tell him precisely that. One fine day he’d pay her back, have a little fun – talk to her, advertise his abilities, spell out in detail the things he was capable of doing to people like her, respectable people, safe and smug people, exactly like Bobo. Yes, let her know just how dangerous he could be, and watch her eyes. Surely that was worth a trip to Denver? Which was what he’d do – go to Denver and visit the Johnsons. Fred Johnson would stake him to a new start in life; he’d have to, if he wanted ever to be rid of him.

Then Dick came up to him at the curb. “Hey, Perry,” he said. “You sick?”

The sound of Dick’s voice was like an injection of some potent narcotic, a drug that, invading his veins, produced a delirium of colliding sensations: tension and relief, fury and affection. He advanced toward Dick with clenched fists. “You sonofabitch,” he said.

Dick grinned, and said, “Come on. We’re eating again.”

But explanations were in order – apologies, too – and over a bowl of chili at the Kansas City hash house that Dick liked best, the Eagle Buffet, Dick supplied them. “I’m sorry, honey. I knew you’d get the bends. Think I’d tangled with a bull. But I was having such a run of luck it seemed like I ought to let it ride.” He explained that after leaving Perry he had gone to the Markl Buick Company, the firm that had once employed him, hoping to find a set of license plates to substitute for the hazardous Iowa plates on the abducted Chevrolet. “Nobody saw me come or go. Markl used to do a considerable wrecked-car trade. Sure enough, out back there was a smashed-up De Soto with Kansas tags.” And where were they now? “On our buggy, pal.” Having made the switch, Dick had dropped the Iowa plates in a Municipal reservoir. Then he’d stopped at a filling station where a friend worked, a former high-school classmate named Steve, and persuaded Steve to cash a check for fifty dollars, which was something he’d not done before – “rob a buddy.” Well, he’d never see Steve again. He was “cutting out” of Kansas City tonight, this is really forever. So why not fleece a few old friends? With that in mind, he’d called on another ex-classmate, a drugstore clerk. The take was thereby increased to seventy-five dollars. Now, this afternoon, we’ll roll that up to a couple hundred. I’ve made a list of places to hit. Six or seven, starting right here,” he said, meaning the Eagle Buffet, where everybody – the bartender and waiters – knew and liked him, and called him Pickles (in honor of his favorite food). “Then Florida, here we come. How’ about it, honey? Didn’t I promise you we’d spend Christmas in Miami? Just like all the millionaires?”

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