Tiny Coffins

Music for Chameleons

by Truman Capote
Random House, 262 pp., $10.95

Unsightly hair seems to give Truman Capote the shudders. One of Holly Golightly’s hangers-on in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was depicted as a pushy, vulgar hobbit. “Tufts of hair sprouted from his ears, from his nose; his jowls were gray with afternoon beard, and his handshake almost furry.” In “Mojave,” a story from Capote’s new collection, Music for Chameleons, a well-to-do female neurotic whose life has been fogged with Seconal and post-partum depressions has an affair with a pudgy psychoanalyst, Dr. Ezra Bentsen. As a lover, Bentsen is a coarse sweaty thumper—“he grimaced, he ground his dentures, he whimpered like a frightened mutt”—and poor Sarah is grateful when his “lathered carcass” finally slides off her. (She never considers getting on top.) After suffering through one of these spasms of rancid lust, Sarah gives Bentsen a tart kiss-off, telling him that he has “hairy heels.” I don’t have hairy heels, Bentsen complains. Oh, yes you do, she counters. “All ordinary horses have hairy heels. Thoroughbreds don’t. The heels of a well-bred horse are flat and glistening.”

Like the preacher in the famous Beyond the Fringe routine, Capote divides God’s creatures into the hairy and the smooth, the untidy and the soigné. Between jiggers of pepper vodka, smooth Sarah and her thoroughbred husband (“God knows, he didn’t have hairy heels,” she thinks admiringly) trade Noel Coward endearments, their prosperous lives poised above a fault line. Under the stiff-upper-lip chitchat, ominous rumbles; and at any moment one expects swizzle-sticks to tremble in their tumblers and thin cracks to zigzag like lightning from floor to ceiling.

Capote’s career has also been teetering on a fault line in recent years, but he argues in his preface that for a writer pain and precariousness come with the territory. “When God hands you a gift, he [He?] also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.” So with God as a harsh overseer, Capote lashed himself from book to book, trying to master a style as supple and firm “as a fisherman’s net.” After the success of The Muses Are Heard, his amusing account of the Russian tour of the black Porgy and Bess company, Capote conceived of a newfangled truth-based novel—“something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.” Tolstoy with a zoom lens, in short. The Herculean project became of course In Cold Blood, and Capote, sounding a melodramatic chord, claims that for “six nerve-shattering years I didn’t know whether I had a book or not.” Now, In Cold Blood is a work of considerable craft and diligence, but Capote didn’t exactly forge the book in dark solitude, dangling from a severed nerve. He promoted himself and the project brilliantly—by the time the book was serialized in The New Yorker he had created an audience for it (just as Gay Talese created an audience for Thy Neighbor’s Wife with his well-publicized labors).


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