Perhaps I’m jaded. Maybe I’ve read “A Rose for Emily” once too often, researched a tad too much about dismemberments in Memphis, taught one class too many on â€œA Good Man is Hard to Find,â€ and indulged myself too uncritically in the fictive Carolina childhood of T.R. Pearson.
Maybe thereâ€™s something deep and dark and twisted in me. I don’t know. But I do know that Truman Capoteâ€™s landmark In Cold Blood, as magnificent as the tale ultimately is, leaves my dank country soul wanting, well, more.
The Clutters were fine, upstanding folks, and Dick and Perry were warped sociopaths who received better than they dished out and far better than they deserved. And these sociopaths set out to make easy money and wound up killing four innocent and good people in the process. Then they got caught and hung. Fin.
But … from a writer as Southern as Capote, am I unjustified in expecting a few Gothic twists? Am I wrong to expect a tale that contorts and shapeshifts as unabashedly as the closing scene of Murder By Death (which features, by the way, none other than Capote hisownself)? We get no illicit prison rape scenes (although Capote flogs the masculine ideal card like itâ€™s the last cashmere sweater in the closet). No dismemberments. No farm girls with artificial appendages. Nobody sleeping with relatives (nobody sleeping with anybody, for that matter). Dick doesn’t rape Nancy after she’s dead. No shenanigans involving exotic pets (like monkeys or meercats). Perry doesn’t perform unnatural experiments on the squirrel he lures into his cell. The lawmen appear to be honest. No lynch mobs gather outside the jailhouse. And the town’s few bona fide characters (like the postmistress, for example) are played remarkably straight.
What the hell?
Put simply, In Cold Blood isn’t really a very Southern story at all. Capote meticulously avoids the slightest suggestion of Gothic even when the potential hangs palpably in the stale afternoon air, as if a mile downwind of a skunk thatâ€™s been baking on the county road for a couple of days. For example, what about the killer who kept digging up his victim and moving him to different graves? Here Capote faces a classic opportunity to indulge a bit of the Faulkner or Welty that all of us Southerners allegedly have locked up inside somewhere. But he ducks.
It’s hard to account for Truman’s curiously restrained behavior. Perhaps he’s just trying to be true to the journalistic muse, or maybe he in all good conscience did not want to artificially impose upon the Clutter chronicle any more excess neo-antebellum baggage than necessary.
Whatever. I guess the point I’m driving at is this: while In Cold Blood is the work of a Southern author, its place in the canon is … unsettled. When we use that word – Southern – we invoke centuries worth of ambivalence and self-loathing, and a Southern authorâ€™s audience has as much right to expect humidity-warped outlandishness as the opening night crowd at a 007 movie has to anticipate half-naked women and chase scenes.
Thereâ€™s no law saying that all writers have to pander to their respective regional stereotypes. But if youâ€™re Southern and you make a habit of restraint and sophistication you risk confusing your audience. And nothing good can come of that.