Review of Truman
Capote’s The Complete Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/12/06
Of the twenty stories that comprise the surprisingly slim (for a writer of his renown) The Complete Stories Of Truman Capote, only two can be classified as great, or at least excellent, while only two others can be called good. The rest are not even passable, despite the occasional memorable image or well-crafted sentence, for the narratives are weak, trite, and transparent. Now, this ration of twenty and ten percent success in goodness and greatness is one that if it were sustained throughout published literature, would leave our time to be considered a Golden Age. However, since the only things I read of Capote’s, before this book, were the excellent In Cold Blood, and the two Christmas tales, A Christmas Memory and One Christmas, this book’s tales were a profound disappointment. More so considering the very two Christmas tales were the only arguably great tales, and the only good tales were also holiday stories: The Thanksgiving Visitor and Jug Of Silver. One might argue, from this quartet, that Capote was the greatest occasional short story writer of all time. The rest of his work, however, ranged from passable to atrocious.
Part of the reason for this reality, however, is that the span of the tales range from 1943 to 1982, with twelve of the stories written in the 1940s- what might be called Capote’s apprentice period. Only Jug Of Silver dates from that era. Reading those first dozen tales is to watch a great writer in utero, and growing. The first four stories are absolutely terrible- no plot, no point, no memorable scenes, characters, nor phrases. The first, 1943’s The Walls Are Cold, is a dull, trite tale about a young, flirtatious socialite, yet even this early the concerns and milieux are archetypically Capotean:
The hostess straightened her trim, black dress and pursed her lips nervously. She was very young and small and perfect. Her face was pale and framed with sleek black hair, and her lipstick was a trifle too dark. It was after two and she was tired and wished they would all go, but it was no small task to rid yourself of some thirty people, particularly when the majority were full of her father’s scotch. The elevator man had been up twice to complain about the noise; so she gave him a highball, which is all he is after anyway. And now the sailors….oh, the hell with it.
She nodded and the hostess turned back down the corridor and went into her mother's room. She lay down on the velvet chaise lounge and stared at the Picasso abstract. She picked up a tiny lace pillow and pushed it against her face as hard as she could. She was going to sleep here tonight, here where the walls were pale rose and warm.
Yet, even if one looks at the final eight tales, that span over thirty years, only three of them succeed, and do so when recalling true memories- or so Capote claimed. He even termed them his nostalgic fictions. It’s always been assumed that Capote turned to longer forms, novellas and novels, because his great financial success with Other Voices, Other Rooms, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Grass Harp, and In Cold Blood, made shorter forms less appealing. But, let’s give the writer his due in knowing his strengths and weaknesses. My guess is Capote knew he was not cut out to be a short fictionist, and was lucky that his financial success basically forestalled any real need to ‘prove’ himself in that genre.
Most of the tales deal with an assortment of prototypically Southern
‘white trash’ problems circa the 1920s through 1940s: religion, sexual
crises, circus freaks, bullying elders, train rides to unknown parents,
eccentrics galore, racism, social faux pas, romantic failures, poverty, schemes
and scams, and silver jugs and diamond guitars. In many of the earlier tales the
symbolism capote uses is obvious, heavy-handed, and downright weak- an old mink
stole that must be sold, a beautiful guitar that calms savage hearts, alluring
but dangerous strangers, and, worst of all, the stereotype of the tormented
artist wannabe, who endures the daily hell of preachers, accountants, gossips,
For example, in The Shape of Things, from 1944, two women and a soldier on a train are threatened by another soldier heading home after being shellshocked. A Mink Of One’s Own, also published in 1944, has a woman visited by an old friend, back from Europe, after the Second World War. The friend gives a coat to the woman, and she pays four hundred dollars for it. Later, the woman realizes the coat is rotten. Miriam is a 1945 tale that is steeped in the Southern Gothic tradition, although set in New York City, about a little girl named Miriam who haunts an old widow of the same name. Is it the woman’s earlier self? Is it in her mind? Is she insane or haunted? It’s a typically Rod Serlingesque tale of the sort that dominates Capote’s 1940s oeuvre. My Side Of The Matter, also from 1945, has a Capotan narrator who is a prisoner of his wife and her family. Preacher’s Legend, also from 1945, follows a stupid old black man, who is hunted by two hunters he deludes himself into believing one of them is Jesus Christ. A Tree of Night, again from 1945, follows an innocent student, sitting on a train next to a slutty woman and her mute companion, who engages an old childhood fear. The Bargain, a highly trumpeted previously unpublished story from 1950, follows a suburban housewife’s ups and downs that parallels the earlier A Mink Of One’s Own, except that the recipient of the coat is a bit more savvy, and aware of the reality of the deal:
Still trailing the clumsy coat, she went to a corner of the room where there was a desk and, writing with resentful jabs, made a check on her private account: she did not intend that her husband should know. More than most, Mrs. Chase despised the sense of loss; a misplaced key, a dropped coin, quickened her awareness of theft and the cheats of life.
A Diamond Guitar,
another 1950 tale, is about a musical instrument that is the prized possession
of a convict, and one of the few early tales that is not awful..
All of these tales have one, or at best, two dimensional characters that
suffer and are put out of their misery, one way or the other, usually by simply
accepting it- the cruelest form of spiritual death. These tales most remind me
of a cross between Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, lacking the brocaded,
inert nature of Welty’s tales, and not quite as grotesqued as O’Connor’s
overrated stories. The few later tales are better, on the whole, but 1975’s Mojave
is another trite clunker about the estrangement of lovers:
That is the reason I have to kill him. He could never have loved me, not if he could ignore my enduring such hell. He says, ‘Yes, I love you Jaime; but Angelita, this is different.’ There is no difference. You love or you do not. You destroy or you do not. But Carlos will never understand that. Nothing reaches him, nothing can- only a bullet or a razor.
She wanted to laugh, at the same time she couldn't because she realized he was serious and also because she well knew how true it was that certain persons could only be made to recognize the truth, be made to understand, by subjecting them to extreme punishment.
Nevertheless she did laugh, but in a manner that Jaime would not interpret as genuine laughter. It was something comparable to a sympathetic shrug. ‘You could never kill anyone, Jaime.’
He began to comb her hair; the tugs were not gentle, but she knew the anger implied was against himself, not her. ‘Shit!’ Then: ‘No. And that’s the reason for most suicides. Someone is torturing you. You want to kill them but you can’t. All that pain is because you love them, and you can’t kill them because you love them. So you kill yourself instead.’
his four holiday tales- Jug Of Silver, The Thanksgiving Visitor, One
Christmas, and most of all, the justly celebrated A Christmas Memory,
represent a quantum leap upward. A Christmas Memory is so chock full of
great scenes and paragraphs that it seems to differ as fundamentally from the
rest of Capote’s short fiction corpus as Robert Frost’s titanic poem Stopping
By Woods On A Snowy Evening does from the rest of his poetry, in both
quality and tone. It starts with this great, rich and emotionally resonant,
Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.
A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable- not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. ‘Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’
The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together- well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.
Buddy and his cousin, who is likely the woman named Sook Faulk, from a few other of the tales, have good and bad, light and dark times, and the tale tells how these two eccentrics- a shy introverted boy and a weird old woman- help each other through life. Here is a typical description of their Southern survival:
We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.
The tale details such elementally rich details as the old cousin’s
superstitions and desire to have Buddy watch movies for her and tell her of
them, to save the strain on her eyes, and then we get the sundering of the past,
and the tale ends with this extremely powerful and moving coda on the death of
Buddy’s old cousin:
This is our last Christmas together.
Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.
And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. (‘Buddy dear,’ she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, ‘yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn’t feel much. I wrapped her in a Fine Linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson's pasture where she can be with all her Bones....’). For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed; not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me ‘the best of the batch.’ Also, in every letter she encloses a dime wadded in toilet paper: ‘See a picture show and write me the story.’ But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880s; more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: ‘Oh my, it's fruitcake weather!’
And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.
The two other Christmas tales are good, Jug Of Silver and One Christmas- which rivals its earlier, and more famous, Christmas predecessor, with an ending just as powerful, albeit less melancholy. That tale follows the same young boy alone on a trip to New Orleans to visit his absentee father, and his later recollections about what he missed out on during that trip- both then, and in the intervening time. The Thanksgiving Visitor is another very good story that follows Buddy, as he and Sook plan for a Great Depression era Thanksgiving. Sook invites an even poorer family to their home for supper, thinking a young boy, Odd Henderson, will make a good pal for Buddy. But, Odd has bullied Buddy at school and Buddy cannot stand him. He also feels jealousy over Sook’s fussing over Odd’s upcoming visit. When Odd comes he steals a brooch of Sook’s and Buddy finks on him. Sook covers for Odd and explains that Buddy’s intent to hurt Odd was worse than Odd’s thievery borne of poverty. Years go by and Sook’s kindness seems to have been a turning point in Odd’s life, yet the tale is not moralistic, and succeeds with a sharp end.
Capote died at the age of 59, in 1984, a withered shell who looked a good quarter century older- filled with hatred and spite, addicted to drugs and alcohol, yet somehow won the O. Henry Memorial Short Story Prize for Shut A Final Door, one of his early pieces of dreck about a plagiarist. Yet, it is clear from this collection that the man simply was not adept with the form, save for a few pieces that could more easily be termed memoirs. The rest of the stories feature ill-formed characters that often veer into caricature, hazy premises and awfully contrived endings that ring too hollowly of artifice, and read like Southern Gothic lit lite. Fortunately, the short story form was merely a practice field for the too few greater works Capote would produce. Would that other writers’ failures bore such bounty in other fields, Elysian or made of pulp.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
Return to Bylines