Books
12:34 pm
Mon February 4, 2008

Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story

Capote in Kansas is not a terrible novel. Things happen. Truman has a lover, a married air conditioner repairman. He sends ghoulish collages and tiny handcarved coffins through the mail. On the phone, Truman and Nelle reminisce about their childhood in Monroeville. The characters are believable; the plot moves. It's not a terrible novel; it's an offensive novel.

Novels are supposed to begin, "This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." Readers, of course, know not to believe this disclaimer unreservedly.

In Capote in Kansas the disclaimer reads: "This is a work of fiction, suggested by certain incidents in the lives of its two main characters."

One of these two main characters is dead. Truman Capote passed away one Saturday afternoon in California, August 25, 1984. The other main character, Nelle Harper Lee, is perfectly alive and living in New York City and Monroeville, Alabama. She lives, as her fans know, a very private life, shuns publicity, refuses interviews, and really does not even like having her picture taken. There is not much doubt in my mind about how Miss Lee would feel about this novel. In fact, it may be that, like previous authors of books about Howard Hughes and J. D. Salinger, Mr. Kim Powers counted on Miss Lee not to sue, to avoid publicity. Those authors were wrong but, since the novel is out, it seems Mr. Powers was right.

And this is an odd novel. The character Capote, only weeks from the end of his life, is living in Palm Springs. Capote is at the end of his rope, in fear of assassins, deeply alcoholic, crazed by uppers and downers. In dreams and while waking, the ghosts of those he wrote of in his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood appear to Truman. First, it is the teenage girl, Nancy Clutter, and then Perry Smith, one of the murderers and Truman's love object, if not actual lover. Truman is terrified by these visitations. Nancy Clutter complains Truman made her famous for getting murdered; Perry complains Truman could have used his money and fame to get Perry out of his death sentence, if Truman had not so needed the hanging as the climax to In Cold Blood.

Truman takes to calling Nelle Harper Lee in the middle of the night, after having been out of touch with her for twenty years. Miss Lee had helped in getting the straight Kansans to open up to the weird Truman, and deserves a lot of the credit for the success of In Cold Blood. Not only did she get little credit, however, but the jealous Truman spread the word that he was instrumental in the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird. Not true.

Soon, the character Miss Lee, in her bedroom in Monroeville, is seeing ghosts, too, first of Bonnie Clutter, the mother of the family, then of the teenage boy Kenyon. Harper Lee becomes a fully drawn character in this novel, but it's hard to know what to make of it. A real living person might, and often does, make a cameo appearance in a novel, to add verisimilitude, but Powers has Miss Lee speaking with her sister, Alice, and visiting the family graves. He even relates her thoughts?which is presumptuous and rude. Worst of all, he places her at the Black and White party at the Plaza Hotel, knowing she wasn't there, and has a scene in which Truman takes her to gay bars in Kansas City, which he also knows never happened.

I was stunned. A novelist might use what is verifiable, might even presume to guess at a living person's thoughts, but how can he have a real person in times and places where she was not? This is just creepy.

Capote in Kansas is not a terrible novel. Things happen. Truman has a lover, a married air conditioner repairman. He sends ghoulish collages and tiny handcarved coffins through the mail. On the phone, Truman and Nelle reminisce about their childhood in Monroeville. The characters are believable; the plot moves. It's not a terrible novel; it's an offensive novel.

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