Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Blood and death row in literary nonfiction

Book: In Cold Blood
Author: Truman Capote
Published: 1965 (original; Vintage)

Modern classic turns out to be good read!
I know. I was shocked too.

But let’s take a minute to talk about why. Capote does that nifty thing where he combines novelistic details with an almost invisible journalistic style to present a clear narrative of a gruesome murder case. He starts broad by alternately describing a perfect Kansas family and developing the schemes of a criminal duo until the two groups collide.

A curtain is delicately drawn over the act itself until way down the chronological road, when the murderers are caught and confess. That’s after the initial public outcry has died to a discontented paranoid murmur and after the story has flattened out into tracing the criminal proceedings.

Throughout the story, Capote does a great job of reconstructing the criminals’ thoughts, histories, plans, and conversations. Almost too good a job that draws you out of the narrative a little to wonder exactly how much access he had to all this, and how, and what he’s possibly made up as a result of possibly lacking said access.

But once they’re caught, a lot of it gets repeated or summarized as evidence, and neither guy has much else to think about once they’re isolated on Kansas’s death row for five years. Their joint hanging is covered as an unsettling anti-climax; the story ends a little later on an emotional note that is elegant enough to again make me wonder how much was neatened up.

Those wonderings mattered to me but only as an object of curiosity that went along with the rest of the reading experience. I was also astonished at how different the style was compared to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, my other Capote encounter – the flourishes of fiction were gone, just like surgically removed or shaved down just enough to show the plain frame of good narrative. I’ve no idea how he did that but it works super well.

So in a public service announcement that will knock your fedora into its proper angle, you should read Truman Capote and start with this book in which he demonstrates his skills without ever seeming to. (That’s a good thing!) 

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