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Wit and wistfulness

September 26, 2004|Gary Indiana | Gary Indiana is the author of several novels, including "Do Everything in the Dark," "Depraved Indifference" and "Resentment."

Too Brief a Treat

The Letters of Truman Capote

Edited by Gerald Clarke

Random House: 492 pp., $27.95

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The Complete Stories of Truman Capote

Truman Capote

Random House: 300 pp., $24.95

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Other Voices, Other Rooms

A Novel

Truman Capote

Modern Library: 198 pp., $19.95

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In that distant era when competitive types like Norman Mailer could still cast an adventitious eye to appraise the talent in the room and imagine that the fate of civilization might be intertwined with the prevailing quality of literature, Truman Capote was celebrated as a peerlessly distinct stylist with a droll, sure eye for detail and -- until "In Cold Blood" revealed the full scope of his ambition -- a miniaturist of genius. His stories, novellas and books of delectable reportage were succinct distillations of the Southern Gothic manner more amply (though often less enjoyably) realized by Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Conner, Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams.

Happily or not, Capote's literary reputation rests primarily on "In Cold Blood," about which it is possible, even decades later, to entertain a measure of cynicism. William Burroughs' remark that it "could have been written by any staff writer at the New Yorker" may have overstated things. But "In Cold Blood" isn't quite the masterwork it's been touted as, though the unfinished "Answered Prayers," so often disparaged, probably could have been. Even in its abbreviated form, it delivers much that "In Cold Blood" doesn't. It's unfair to treat the rest of Capote's writing as prelude or postscript to his best-known book, though many letters in "Too Brief a Treat," one of three books issued on the 20th anniversary of his death, underscore the huge stakes Capote had riding on "In Cold Blood" -- a gamble he certainly won in his lifetime.

"In Cold Blood" caught something ugly and lethal in society a few minutes ahead of everyone else; it posits a Norman Rockwell ordinariness as perfection and plays to the same kinds of stereotypes, cliches and anxieties that Friday the 13th and Halloween do. In short, it is more enjoyable as a species of camp than as a work of literature.

Long before "In Cold Blood," Capote had the idea for a truly shocking book that would disgorge, exquisitely, everything he had learned about money and the people who have it, his society women "swans" and their gargoyle husbands, their secrets and lies and betrayals. Had he refrained from publishing pieces of "Answered Prayers" in advance of the main course, he might have been able to cook up the entree. But the two excerpts that appeared in Esquire in 1975 and 1976 mobilized most of the old-money elite society against him. The rich may fawn on court jesters and lapdogs, but he must have known that they dump any pet that bites in the time it takes to place a phone call to the vet.

Capote's fall from grace with the likes of socialite Babe Paley induced an epic case of depression and writer's block, sporadically overcome with short pieces, a novella and some gorgeously compressed stories, including the title story of "Music for Chameleons." From his letters to friends and acquaintances, we learn little of this. They do indicate, with a painful gallows humor, a losing struggle against what's currently called substance abuse. It has been said that the consummate craftsman's inability to finish "Answered Prayers" was what really killed him, regardless of the pills and liquor. Certainly when he wasn't writing, he was thinking about writing, which most writers will tell you is far more torturous than doing it.

Capote's letters are indeed "too brief a treat," but they reveal what gnawed at their author's mind in any given period. It should be sobering to any aspiring writer to realize how much Capote, even after he became famous, suffered financial insecurity of the most thwarting variety -- and how stoical and determined he had to be to get what he wanted done. Judging from these letters, he was unstintingly kind to his friends and ferociously supportive of their careers. His loyalty reflects an admirable, obdurate courage, especially considering how miserably repaid it often was, and how often the recipients of his financial or emotional largess took it for granted. From the time of his first success, with "Other Voices, Other Rooms" -- one of the most plangent, mysterious and perfect evocations of childhood ever written and now reissued -- Capote managed to live well, even when that required desperately nimble improvisation. But a great deal of the big money he made (from screenplays, "In Cold Blood" and advances)went to support his mother, stepfather and a plethora of ghastly ex-lovers.

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