What to make of the work and career of Truman Capote? One of the most gifted prose stylists of his generation, author of the ground breaking non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, raconteur and high society gadfly; Capote nevertheless is looked upon as someone who didn’t quite stack up. He left more than a little on the table is the sentiment most often voiced. And this is maybe true, probably in no small part due to his active social life and near constant self-promotion, not to mention his liberal use of various substances (controlled or otherwise). Certainly he was not as prolific as his noted rivals Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Nor did Capote excel in the long form novel so often associated in people’s minds with literary accomplishment. Much of Capote’s best loved work comes in the form of novella or short story.
This year I went on a Capote jag, careening thru Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Grass Harp and finally, Music for Chameleons. Any of the other titles could have made my list but I chose Music for Chameleons because it is so representative of Capote’s many gifts. In it you will find reportage of the first order, a haunting true crime novella that reads like the perfect whodunit, and poetic short stories that evoke the subtlest shades of human emotion. There is a remembrance of Marilyn Monroe that manages to render her at once more human and vital (she’s got a mouth on her like a sailor) than I have ever seen her while still achieving an elegiac poignancy. Capote manages to convey the tragedy of her loss without the usual mawkish hagiography.
Capote was a writer of real grace and finesse and some of his best work is on display in Music for Chameleons. And then there’s this: no fewer than 3 times while reading this book I finished a story and felt compelled to hand the book to my wife and say ‘you have to read this’. She was a good sport about it and she would read each story and then keep on reading some more which is why I had to end up stealing the book back from her; 3 times, maybe 4 as I think she stole it back on one occasion. From this I learned a lesson about recommending and loaning books (finish them first) and also about being careless where you leave things. So I still say you have to read this but buy your own copy.
In these gems of reportage Truman Capote takes true stories and real people and renders them with the stylistic brio we expect from great fiction. Here we encounter an exquisitely preserved Creole aristocrat sipping absinthe in her Martinique salon; an enigmatic killer who sends his victims announcements of their forthcoming demise; and a proper Connecticut householder with a ruinous obsession for a twelve-year-old he has never met. And we meet Capote himself, who, whether he is smoking with his cleaning lady or trading sexual gossip with Marilyn Monroe, remains one of the most elegant, malicious, yet compassionate writers to train his eye on the social fauna of his time.
“Electrifying . . . a knockout. Capote’s alacrity and cunning makes this his most enjoyable book.” —Newsweek
“An incomparable stylist and entertainer . . . clean and cool . . . [with a] superb, near-perfect pitch with dialogue.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Everything is displayed in this book: insights and recollections of the famous and the obscure; old jokes and fresh wit. . . . These stories and vignettes will endure.” —The New Republic