Sometimes things happen in the right order. If I had been a conscientious student at Hunter High School, I’d have read this book under Jack McNeil, my very first Creative Writing instructor. At the very least, you might think I’d have taken it 20 years later, as a narrative-obsessed journalist. But the true-crime genre it spawned had persuaded me I didn’t need to; who needed to read about a grisly murder? I care about trauma, but didn’t I already admire, and praise in my teaching, My Dark Places, James Ellroy’s account of the murder of his mother and his search for their killer? And I certainly never saw the 1976 film made from the book.
Even seeing the two recent “Capote movies” back to back didn’t drive me to the book. The more famous of the two, Capote, was most interesting for its portrayal of Capote’s erotic attachment to accused killer Perry Smith (played above by Robert Blake in the 1967 flick). And seeing Infamous (trailer below) I was taken by Capote’s close partnership with Harper Lee, who did a lot of the reporting Capote ultimately claimed was his own.
It wasn’t till I came across the book here in Philadelphia that I decided it was time to read it — that would be a good lesson in the writing of narrative nonfiction. Now, I’m kind of stunned.
Six years it took for Capote to combine it all — to dream the dream properly till it was, as my old sensei John Gardner demands of fiction, both vivid and continuous. And I’m thankful that I went in with *exactly* the amount of information I had. I was simultaneously swept up in the dream and, on every page, nodding admiringly at how the story of that Kansas morning was woven from soft conversations with farm folk and stubborn cops.
I sit here persuaded of two things:
- That the story it tells is both profound and rather slight, as I’d long suspected.
- That I have to find the scholars who’ve looked at Capote’s summary of the psychiatric testimony, and see those psychiatrists ooked at Smith’s military experiences in detail.
- That as long as I live as a writer, I can study all I like, but it’s unlikely that I’ll ever write any prose that comes ten percent within Capote’s.
None of which stops me from writing: and it’s dourly appropriate to read this as I construct snapshots from the tales told by veterans. I’ll just hope that some of the fairy dust clings to my fingers, so that the ten percent range is still achievable.