I must confess, this is the first time I’ve read this book. I’m always a little behind the times. Some of my students are reading this with their regular English teacher, though, so I read it in case I need to field any additional questions. It’s very well written; I’m not really clear on how creative nonfiction developed as a genre, but this seems like it should be one of the monoliths of twentieth-century American nonfiction. (You know the monoliths; monoliths of British literature before 1750 are Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, for example).

This is the story of how two paroled criminals broke into the Clutter family home and killed them all, followed by the longer story of how they were caught and eventually executed. Sorry to give away the ending, but these are historical events. It’s all on public record.

The first part, telling about the day before the killings, has a similar feel to it as Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain.” It’s almost like fate impelled these two groups of people to interact in predetermined ways. I say almost, because things could easily have happened differently. When I was teaching composition at a community college, I’d ask the students to write a short autobiography. They came from all over the country, and several from other countries, to end up in our rural Southern town, studying various things for various reasons, but the cumulative effect of reading all those stories was that I started thinking of the town as a black hole that sucked people in from all over the place and refused to let them leave. It’s not true, of that or any other town, but when we know the end of the story, all the steps before it seem preordained instead of governed by human choices. Capote focuses on the seemingly fatalistic nature of the story, perhaps as a way to exculpate the murderers:

But the confessions, though they answered questions of how and why, failed to satisfy his sense of meaningful design. The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered. And Dewey could not forget their sufferings. Nonetheless, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger – with, rather, a measure of sympathy – for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another. Dewey’s sympathy, however, was not deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy. He hoped to see Perry and his partner hanged – hanged back to back.

And Perry in particular, as in this comment on his family:

Strong character, high courage, hard work – it seemed that none of these were determining factors in the fates of Tex John’s children. They shared a doom against which virtue was no defense.

If this book has a protagonist, it is Perry Smith. Capote lends him the most sympathy, perhaps because he needs it the most, being the man who pulled the trigger. Or maybe he just liked him the most; it could be a gay thing.

Homosexuality is, in my opinion, one of the most significant issues in the book. What can you say about it in print in 1965? How did people live that in 1959? Growing up in the rural South, I was taught to see the 1950s as an unspoiled Eden, where people were safe, prosperous, and happy. This apparent paradise came at a cost, though, and I only learned the price of conformity later. It seems to me that if he were alive today, Perry would be gay. Think of the evidence in the book: he claims that the queens just won’t leave him alone, yet the homosexuals I know would only continue bothering him if he liked it, or were really good at it. He was a sailor and a soldier, two male-only environments at the time, and later he got sent to prison, another opportunity to be with only men. He looks down on men whom he perceives as unable to control their sexual desires, which usually seems to mean they are up front about their interest in women. One of Perry’s most prized possessions is a scrapbook filled with pictures of bodybuilders that he’s taken from magazines. He and his former cellmate call each other romantic endearments, and while I’m not entirely up on the Bro Code of the 1950s, I know that straight men today don’t call each other those names. Perry’s most intense friendship is with someone he says is queer, and the idea of seeing him again makes Perry break his parole and return to Kansas.

And what is the life of a gay man in the 1950s? One of constant evasion. He hides in periodic, short-lived relationships with women, but he hates himself for what he sees as an insuperable character flaw, an evil that cannot be eradicated. In liberal areas, large cities and artist colonies, for example, he might find some support and friends he can be out with, and some gay men even found necessarily secret communities and lifelong lovers. But for someone who’s poor and rural, like Perry, these comforts are permanently out of reach. As my friends like to say, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Why is it that when I really like or identify with someone in fiction, that person always turns out to be either evil or crazy? Like in the new Point Break, which is full of bearded ecowarriors with foreign accents (aka, sexy as all get-out), but it makes them the bad guys, and they all die. Perry is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic at the end of the book, which makes me have to remind myself that I’m a mental illness hypochondriac and not actually a paranoid schizophrenic. I spent most of the book thinking he was the good one, and even after I know he was the murderer I still have the most sympathy for him. Perry feels like the world is out to get him, which makes perfect sense when you consider his experience with the world, but I think his most important problem is that he doesn’t have an emotional response to the suffering of others. I don’t remember if this makes him a psychopath or a sociopath, but certainly it’s something pathological. And it’s something I clearly don’t have; I feel other people’s pain rather more than other people admit to.

Perry’s partner, Dick, is not much like him. He’s much more integrated into his family and has fewer homosexual tendencies. Capote implies that he’s using sex to manipulate Perry, and whether he’s using sex or not, Dick does see Perry as a tool instead of a person. After Perry is released on parole, Dick’s new cellmate tells him about the Clutter family. Dick hatches the plot of robbing and murdering the whole family, but he needs Perry to put it into action because he thinks Perry will be able to kill them if Dick can’t. Dick is a pedophile, so his real goal is to rape the sixteen-year-old daughter, but Perry stops him (another reason I like him – I am also opposed to raping teenage girls, or anyone else. Rape is bad). There are two versions of the story, so we don’t really know whether Perry killed all four Clutters or only the two male family members, so it is possible that Dick didn’t have what it takes to kill after all. I suppose an inability to kill is not really a negative trait, but if you’re going to make this type of plan, you should be willing to do it. Don’t ask someone else to do something that you’re not ready to do yourself.

I suppose the victims are sort of important too, but the book isn’t really about them (once they’re in the ground, they’re out of the story). The Clutters exemplify the Edenic sort of life I was brought up to assume was characteristic of the time. Hardworking, intelligent, and ambitious, they are also kind and helpful. Nancy Clutter is precisely the type of girl the culture tells us everyone should want to be, be with, or both. Her little brother is always building or inventing something, and her mentally ill mother keeps out of the way of the successes of the rest of the family. One of the things that Dick doesn’t understand about families like the Clutters is that not all of their prosperity is proven by actual cash on hand. On a farm, success is shown by the system’s ability to perpetuate itself, so wealth is recognized as goods that the farm can use, such as grain for the animals or preserved food for the humans. To make matters worse, Herb Clutter is famous for never using cash; he writes checks for everything. Yes, Dick is an expert at writing bad checks, but he doesn’t think through all of this. He doesn’t have enough information to get what he wants: to rape the girl, and then to commit the murders and robbery without getting caught.

I’m actually more interested in their community. People are more forgiving than I imagine people today to be, or maybe people are more forgiving individually than in a group. For example, Nancy’s best friend:

Anyway, I don’t much care who did it. Somehow it seems beside the point. My friend is gone. Knowing who killed her isn’t going to bring her back. What else matters?

A local pastor:

I have even heard on more than one occasion that the man, when found, should be hanged from the nearest tree. Let us not feel this way. The deed is done and taking another life cannot change it. Instead, let us forgive as God would have us do. It is not right that we should hold a grudge in our hearts. The doer of this act is going to find it difficult indeed to live with himself. His only peace of mind will be when he goes to God for forgiveness. Let us not stand in the way but instead give prayers that he may find his peace.

Their peer group:

The aristocracy of Finney County had snubbed the trial. “It doesn’t do,” announced the wife of one rich rancher, to seem curious about that sort of thing.”

And their governor:

The late George Docking, Governor of Kansas from 1957 through 1960, was responsible for this hiatus [in carrying out executions], for he was unreservedly opposed to the death penalty (“I just don’t like killing people”).

And yet, when confronted with the jury, Perry thinks

Those prairiebillys, they’ll vote to hang fast as pigs eat slop. Look at their eyes. I’ll be damned if I’m the only killer in the courtroom.

Why? It could be the paranoia, I suppose. But I think that it’s because people are there for the show. The trial is entertainment, as the justice system has always been. Think of the broadsheet heroes that Foucault talks about in Discipline and Punish; they boast and swagger all the way to the gallows, with the crowd laughing, cheering, jeering, and hissing. Maybe they only care insofar as it affects them, and they’d feel personally betrayed if the murderers went free. If you start a mystery story, you want to know the end; you want closure – you want to feel that the world works in clearly understandable ways, and that every problem has a solution. But (circling back), in some ways, now that The People have replaced the monarch, that feeling of betrayal is justified. But I think this bit about the post office might be an accurate representation of their attitude in general:

The people of Holcomb speak of their post office as “the Federal Building,” which seems rather too substantial a title to confer on a drafty and dusty shed. The ceiling leaks, the floor boards wobble, the mailboxes won’t shut, the light bulbs are broken, the clock has stopped. “Yes, it’s a disgrace,” agrees the caustic, somewhat original, and entirely imposing lady who presides over this litter. “But the stamps work, don’t they? Anyhow, what do I care? Back here in my part is real cozy. I’ve got my rocker, and a nice wood stove, and a coffee pot, and plenty to read.”

And, there’s this bit from Perry’s friend Willie-Jay:

What could be more conventional than a housewife with three children, who is “dedicated” to her family???? What could be more natural than that she would resent an unconventional person.

In some ways, it feels like Capote is the unconventional person resented by the conventional masses; Perry has that in common with him, and I feel something similar about the ex, who defines herself as a stay-at-home mom who is not only dedicated but devoted to her children. She wasn’t that interested in being a housewife; before the kids were born, we were content to ignore conventional gender roles, but afterward, it was all skirts and submission and OccMan has to go get three jobs because manliness means voluntary misery.

One of Perry’s dreams, toward the end, seems just like an episode of The Twilight Zone; I’d love to see it onscreen.

His favorite old theatrical fantasy, the one in which he thought of himself as “Perry O’Parsons, The One-Man Symphony,” returned in the guise of a recurrent dream. The dream’s geographical center was a Las Vegas night club where, wearing a white top hat and a white tuxedo, he strutted about a spotlighted stage playing in turn a harmonica, a guitar, a banjo, drums, sang “You Are My Sunshine,” and tap-danced up a short flight of gold-painted prop steps; at the top, standing on a platform, he took a bow. There was no applause, none, and yet thousands of patrons packed the vast and gaudy room – a strange audience, mostly men and mostly Negroes. Staring at them, the perspiring entertainer at last understood their silence, for suddenly he knew that these were phantoms, the ghosts of the legally annihilated, the hanged, the gassed, the electrocuted – and in the same instant he realized that he was there to join them, that the gold-painted steps had led to a scaffold, that the platform on which he stood was opening beneath him. His top hat tumbled; urinating and defecating, Perry O’Parsons entered eternity.

It’s not a bad way to go. Singing, dancing, playing music . . . I’m still drawn to an audience, even after all these years away from a stage. I hope that in his last moments Perry found some peace, recovered some self-regard. I think that Capote’s nonfiction novel, though it came after his death, gives Perry the acclaim that he always wanted.

CAPOTE

I just rewatched the film about the writing of In Cold Blood, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote. I must say, the view we get from the film is completely different than the one in the book. [Apparently there was another Capote film called Infamous, with more star power but less adherence to historical fact.] First, Perry looks as white as they come instead of having the coloring of his full-blooded Native American mother. Then, there’s the way Capote is a self-promoting manipulator who will do anything to get his next novel written, even getting someone killed. In the book, he’s so self-effacing that you don’t notice the author/narrator’s personality at all. But there again, I may be projecting myself onto him. I took one of those facebook quizzes a month or two ago, How Evil Are You?, and I discovered that in most ways, I’m not very evil at all. However. Apparently I have a manipulative/Machiavellian side, and it’s not so much a side as it is two-thirds of my character. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t befriend and possibly encourage some amorous contact with someone just so that I could write a book about the worst thing he’s ever done, and then try to conceal the fact from him until he’s been executed for it. I’d also like to think that Truman Capote didn’t, but I can’t say for sure. I have no idea how much truth is in the film, though for that matter I don’t know how much truth is in Capote’s book. All I can say is, these two texts present the same period of time very differently. And it’s likely that something terrible happened either to or within Truman Capote, because he lived for another twenty years and didn’t finish another book. Yes, think of DeLillo’s Mao II, but also think of watching Perry get executed, knowing that it’s the perfect ending to your book and also knowing that you really care for this person and want him to live. A breakdown makes sense.

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