Losing Capote: Unexorcised Demons

In Cold Blood is a compelling read because of the way in which the story unfolds. Truth, it has been said is far superior to all fictions; all you need is the genius to interpret it. In the writing of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote presents the truth: the chronological order of events; the meticulous attention to details of time and place. He assembles the events leading up to the murder of the four members of the Clutter family and the research into the lives of the murderers, and weaves them together into a seamless narrative. We see the last days of the Clutter family and the peaceful regularity of their lives side by side with a look into the disordered lives of their murderers. He draws these parallel lives closer and closer together to the vanishing point of the final outcome as if he was writing a novel, gathering the facts, verifying and presenting them with surprising economy in short sharp deliveries of information. Nothing is spelled out; no judgements are made and the pathology of the criminal mind is not examined. The writer’s interpretation is through the presentation of the events and the way in which he presents them, and that triggers the reader’s understanding and interpretation. “Like God in the universe the writer is present everywhere and visible nowhere” said Flaubert, and on every page of In Cold Blood we sense Capote’s presence but nowhere does he mention himself.

Truman Capote had broken new ground. This was him at the top of his art. But in the year of its publication, despite its innovative method, critical acclaim and unprecedented commercial success, In Cold Blood won neither the Pulitzer Prize nor the National Book Award. It was bypassed and the acclaim given to less significant works. On hearsay he learned that the recognition that escaped him was the work of one man on the panel who had decided that the book was merely a commercial success. He had invented a new literary form; but he had been bypassed by the literary establishment whose recognition he craved. He was the outsider.

You could see it coming: that he was bound to see this as a rejection and failure and you secretly hope he would let it pass and do the thing that he did best –write. Instead, he put aside the universal and international acclaim and adulation he was receiving, shoved Unanswered Prayers, the books he intended to write next on the back burner and focused on this failure. It played demon tricks on his mind, continuously demanding that he explain the reasons for his rejection; continuously taunting him as the outsider.

This and the strain of the years of intense writing and research combined with the madness of fame overwhelmed him. He had become public property: having to cope with public adulation which could turn vicious when fans were unsatisfied. The trauma of having been so close to such terrible events; of having to view graphic and detailed photographs of the deceased, was physically and mentally exhausting. The once beautiful 17 year old Nancy Clutter’s head, he said, was shattered like jagged mountain peaks –something he could not forget.

To compound matters, it didn’t help when the book started an international debate on the Death Penalty in America. It matched his ambivalence regarding the matter. He had seen the two murderers hanged after befriending them during the years of their incarceration and he was unable to save them. The sighs of relief he breathed when the last stay of execution was denied and sentence was finally passed seemed to him like a betrayal of their trust in order to get his story. The weight of all this played on his mind, making the disappointment of rejection unbearable, and the demons of childhood rejection which still lurked in his soul unexorcised, were unleashed.

 He began slip-sliding on dangerous ground and no amount of alcohol could give him solace.


Blog to come: Truman: Gentleman or artist?