The Early Stories of Truman Capote

The Early Stories of Truman Capote

Growing up in the ‘70s, I always thought Truman Capote was an actor.  You see, I had only seen him on the multitude of talk shows (Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, etc.) watched by my parents and grandparents, and as Lionel Twain in the movie Murder by Death.  It wasn’t until a good deal later, probably in junior high or even high school, that I realized he was far more well known as an author, and a damned good one at that evidently.

But even having been clued in to his status as a fine, fine writer for some time now, of all of his works I still have only managed to read In Cold Blood to date.  I realize I have a lot of catching up to do.

The stories collected in The Early Stories of Truman Capote are thought to have been written by Capote between the ages of 11 and 19 and, in truth, seven of the stories were actually published in his high school newspaper.  According to the book’s afterword, “Louise”, one of the seven, was awarded second place in his school’s writing contest.  Second?  You have to wonder how the winner felt years later when Capote became a literary force.  Did she (if it was a she) giggle to herself that her writing was once judged better than Truman Capote’s, or did he (if it was a he) want to crawl under a rock?

Most of these stories take place in the South of his early childhood and you can practically feel the sticky summer heat and humidity rising sinuously off the pages.  In “Mill Store”, a jaded store clerk watches picnickers fish, swim and chow down on the banks of the creek behind her workplace, remembering a moment when she had fished the stream herself and caught “two moccasins.  How she had screamed when she pulled the snakes up, twisting, flashing their slimy bodies in the sun, their poisonous, cotton mouths sunk into her hook.”  First of all, I screamed myself when I read this and the visual still gives me the shiverin’ heebie-jeebies.  Secondly, that memory becomes even more prescient when the clerk is called upon to save a young victim of snakebite.

A stubborn boy fails to heed the advice of his cagier friend and pays a deadly price for his actions in “Swamp Terror”, while the swamp is also the downfall of a desperate woman newly escaped from jail in “The Moth in the Flame”.  Two high school girls each possess their own dark secrets in “Hilda” and “Louise” and add to the sense of desolation that washes over many of these stories.

But all isn’t complete doom and gloom in these worlds the youthful Capote asks us to inhabit.  While still a tearjerker, “This Is for Jamie” is my favorite of the bunch in which a selfless eight-year-old generously brings gifts for a sick boy he’s never met and reaps the reward, proving that good things do happen to good people.  Or maybe I just like this one because there’s a dog.  I’m a sucker for dogs.  Dogs make everything better.

If you’re like me and a relative Capote rookie, I probably wouldn’t recommend The Early Stories of Truman Capote as a place to start your Tru education.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the collection.  I actually did.  But I don’t think it provides a newbie with anything remotely approaching a good overview of what he later produced.  As a rule, these stories lack polish (not unexpectedly) and some end so abruptly you feel like you’ve been left dangling precariously over a gaping hole.  But despite all that there’s no doubt that, even at such a young age, Capote was going to be a master at setting a stage, creating a world in which to plunk his characters down so they could take root and blossom.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Random House via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

 

 

 

Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking

More short stories. The last two books I finished were short story collections and I wasn’t sure I wanted to move on to another. “Shit,” I said, “it’s Colum McCann. You know you’re going to love it.” And I did.

Thirteen Ways of Looking

In “Thirteen Ways of Looking”, the title novella, an elderly, retired judge reflects back on his life during the course of what, unbeknownst to him, will be his last day on this earth. He’s insightful, he’s funny in that funny, old-man kinda way, and he is one rich character! I felt like he was going to totter right off the page with his walking stick and right into my den. I found myself wishing he actually had but that would have really freaked my dogs out! Security cameras record each moment of that final day: Hidden cameras in his home (installed by a son intent on catching the live-in help in something illicit) capture his morning rituals, cameras located in the common areas of his apartment building and on the street paint a picture of his daily, noon-time foray, and the video system at Chialli’s (his usual lunch spot) pieces together his final minutes and seconds. As Judge Mendelssohn takes stock, it feels as if we also have a video link directly into his brain: We’re party to every thought, every memory, every tangent his mind takes, right up until the moment of his demise.

While Judge Mendelssohn is one immensely likeable old dude, his son Elliot is another matter altogether. In the most heartbreaking vignette of the story, Elliot, self-absorbed, self-important asshole that he is, joins Pops for lunch but then spends nearly every minute on his cell phone.

A writer is commissioned to write a New Year’s Eve-themed short story in “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” and McCann takes us both into the story the author writes and into the author’s mind as he writes it. It’s absorbing insight into the way a writer thinks, how he inhabits his characters, asks the questions they would ask.

“Sh’khol” is every parent’s nightmare. What happens when you turn your back for that one second (or hour . . . or hours in this instance), when you allow yourself to lapse into inattention for just a little too long? And when the child has special needs, the agony is compounded.

In “Treaty”, a septuagenarian nun realizes that the man who once held her brutally captive has become a proponent of peace.

McCann is a hell of a writer, a true literary heavyweight. He’s one you read for the sheer joy of the way he works the language. It seems effortless from our perspective, but if fiction writing is at all autobiographical, then I think McCann is telling us in “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” that writing is anything but easy. Still he makes it look that way. He has a true gift for expressing the inner workings in each of his characters minds: the searching, the questioning, the whys and wherefores, the answers we’re constantly looking for and only sometimes finding, the sheer humanness of just being human. He makes me jealous that I don’t have that gift, dammit!

As an example of the utter realness of McCann’s writing, I keep going back to a passage from “Thirteen Ways of Looking”, as Judge Mendelssohn assesses his lunch-time waitress: “Genuine it seems: she’s not just blowing smoke, like half the waitstaff seem to do every day, their mundanities, nice to see you, have a good day, are you still working on that, sir? I’m eating, young lady, not working.” McCann absolutely nails the laissez-faire attitude of many young people today in this one musing of Mendelssohn’s, and Mendelssohn’s attitude towards it. I have to say that attitude is a pet peeve of mine too, and I’m not nearly so old as Mendelssohn. It’s like when you tell your server, “Thank you”, and they shoot back, “No problem.” Of course it’s “no problem”. It’s YOUR JOB! Whatever happened to “You’re welcome”? Where is Emily Post when we need her? But I digress.

McCann will probably rack up tons of awards and accolades for this collection and deservedly so. These are stories you keep thinking about and reflecting on long after you’re finished. For the title novella alone, I give this collection 5 stars. This one made me want to sing, y’all!

Have you read it or planning on reading it?  Let me know what you think.

A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Random House via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed are my own.