WordsDay: A Southern writer's famous Midwestern tale

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 “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and indulged myself too uncritically in the fictive Carolina childhood of T.R. Pearson.

Maybe there’s something deep and dark and twisted in me. I don’t know. But I do know that Truman Capote’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 it’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 that’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 author’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.

There’s no law saying that all writers have to pander to their respective regional stereotypes. But if you’re Southern and you make a habit of restraint and sophistication you risk confusing your audience. And nothing good can come of that.

5 replies »

  1. And Harper Lee was with him on the investigation… really, someone should have yanked his Southern passport and made him cannibalize a mentally handicapped third cousin to get it back.

  2. After reading the obligatory Carson McCullers and Harper Lee as a youth, I somehow skipped over Southern literature. Except for James Lee Burke, one of a tiny handful of mystery writers to actually create literature (possible future Scrogue).

    I also somehow missed In Cold Blood, though I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A city person, Capote probably just wanted to forget about his southern origins. But I did read parts of his final unfinished novel, Answered Prayers, that was excerpted in Interview magazine. It was beyond awful; his concentration was shot.

    Once, when I lived for a while in The Fabulous Hamptons of New York’s Long Island, he and Andrew Warhol, who founded Interview magazine, sat for a signing at a local bookstore. It was to promote an issue of Interview which I think carried one of those excerpts.

    When I bought a copy and handed it to them to sign, I remember Capote as grim and unfriendly and Warhol as extravagantly polite in that way socialite women often have. One was as bad as the other.

    On the plus side, Capote provided fertile territory for the most gifted actor of our generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Just the other day I added Capote to our Netflix queue and am looking forward to watching it.

  3. Dr. Slammy,

    Face it, you’ve gotta be Southern to truly understand what Southern writers are all about. Unless you’ve lived the languid pace of life, understood the types of people, and mastered the idiosyncracies of life in Dixie, you haven’t got an clue, and are at a strict disadvantage. Case in point, my son took an intro to Southern Literature course at Yale taught by a Yankee from New Hampshire. My son was raised on Southern Literature since his pablum days, and had a better grasp on the material than his professor. However, he sucked it in, kept his head down, and regurgitated the politically correct answers. He ended up with a good grade, even though he wished that he woukd have told the truth.


  4. But Capote didn’t hate the South – he didn’t. He didn’t. 😉

    I think pillorying Capote for ICB is like pillorying REM for not sounding like The Allmans – it sparks interesting discussion, but it denies that the South has changed because of the homogenization of American culture by advertising, consumer culture, etc.. I’m not sure that the gothic South now is much different than the gothic California of, say, Joan Didion.

  5. Really, I’m not sure that the Gothic South was ever significantly more Gothic than anywhere else; it just had a generation or two of chroniclers obsessed with the more baroque aspects of human interaction. Plus ubiquitous sweating, illicit sex, creepy swamps, misery as the foundation of society, a culture of secrecy and polite fury…

    Oh hell. It was pretty Gothic. But Jim has a point – look at that crazy Yankee Joyce Carol Oates.

    And Capote, distinctly unpleasant though he may have been, did something that’s pretty hard to do – he stepped out of his comfort zone and wrote his intended “journalistic novel.” It must have been hard to resist slipping a Midwestern Boo Radley in there somewhere.