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).
Since In Cold Blood, however, Capote’s avid longing for attention from the press has caused him to take many a nasty spill off the hay-ride. He gave an embarrassingly groggy performance in Neil Simon’s witless private-eye spoof, Murder by Death; appeared as a panelist on television’s The Cheap Show, sitting by as contestants were drenched with buckets of green goo; and staggered through an interview on a local New York talk-show, chattering away about how tough and mean Southern queers could be. The indiscretions contained in the excerpts from the still-in-progress novel Answered Prayers also provoked anger and distress.
Much of Music for Chameleons seems to be directed at the audience which knows Capote only through his talkshow appearances—certainly readers who have kept close tabs on Capote’s career over the years don’t need to be told about his years of apprenticeship, or how he “created” that much-maligned mutation, the “nonfiction novel.” At times Music for Chameleons seems at war with itself: Capote exploits his TV recognition, tossing off racy anecdotes, and yet again and again he anxiously points out that he’s more than a TV gremlin with a freaky, high giggle—he’s a literary figure of Flaubertian rigor and dignity. Fame has become Truman Capote’s tar-baby.
Curious that Capote says in his preface that he prefers his writing to be as clear and simple as a country creek, for the title story is tricked up with all sorts of mauvish trimmings. The setting: the home of a Martinique aristocrat, who serves absinthe-flavored iced mint tea on the terrace as a hummingbird buzzes to and fro and chameleons skitter about her feet. “Chameleons,” she says. “Such exceptional creatures. The way they change color. Red. Yellow. Lime. Pink. Lavender. And did you know they are very fond of music?” Why, no. So at the piano she sits, playing a Mozart sonata for an audience of appreciative reptiles.
A woman who serenades chameleons from her “cool Caribbean salon” sounds like a Ronald Firbank creation, a stately aristo who attends mass in the morning and moons over cocoa-skinned native boys in the afternoon. “Fetch me my fan, Miranda, my curls are wilting in this listless air,” etc. But Capote plays the scene not for comedy but for doomy existential poignancy: peering into a black mirror which hangs in Madame’s drawing room, he sees endless depths, corridors of darkness. Later, with the mirror in his lap, the visitor muses, “Strange where our passions carry us, floggingly pursue us [God’s whip cracks again], forcing upon us unwanted dreams, unwelcome destinies.”
Capote’s prose is too precious to support such a lofty meditation, and once the chameleons re-group on the terrace to listen to Mozart the story collapses into camp. An even slighter work is “Hospitality,” a nostalgic trifle about a kindly old widow who keeps stacks of dead cats in her freezer. Harmlessly barmy, the widow is one of those people who troop through life wearing a sandwich board which says, “Ain’t life peculiar?” (Were she living in New Orleans, she could enlist in John Kennedy Toole’s confederacy of dunces.)
Frightened mutts and frozen cats, chameleons and thoroughbreds—this new collection is filled with animal images, particularly once Capote crosses the Mississippi and the humidity dips. In a self-interview which closes Music for Chameleons, Capote even says he wouldn’t mind being reincarnated as a buzzard. Buzzards traditionally represent the pitilessness of nature and fate, the recognition that to the predator life is little more than a rotting spectacle.
“Handcarved Coffins,” an ambitious nonfiction novella about a string of ingeniously sadistic murders in an unnamed western state, is a deathwatch chronicle—a buzzard-like vigil. Capote has always had a taste for the ghoulish—I remember seeing him once on a talk-show gleefully spinning out a story about a woman whose hair was infested with spiders—and the killings here have a fiendish brio. A married couple is attacked by a nest of amphetamine-crazed rattlers; a rancher driving a jeep is beheaded by a steel wire strung across the road. Unlike In Cold Blood, in which Capote remained omnisciently remote, “Handcarved Coffins” has its author in the thick of the investigation, sharing his thoughts and fears with us at every macabre turn. Striving for “the immediacy of film,” Capote has written this multiple-murder yarn in screenplay form, adorning the chunks of dialogue with feathery descriptions of clear vistas and cloud formations (“…the air was still, free of snow, and shimmering with the embers of a sunset and the first pale radiance of a moonrise…”).
“Handcarved Coffins” has been sold to the movies for a whopping sum, and small wonder: Capote does everything but tell the director where to place the camera. The plot of this novella is also a cinema-driven suspense machine, as victim after victim is knocked off in Agatha Christie ten-little-Indians fashion by a religious fanatic reminiscent of Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Luridly readable, “Handcarved Coffins” is a compact pulp thriller, with corpses forming unsightly lumps on the moonlit prairie.
Unfortunately, Capote is aiming for something nobler—more classically “literary.” As in “Mojave,” liquor and snowflakes bring out the silkiest embellishments in Capote’s style. Red vodka burns in “Mojave”‘s firelight like “a ruby bauble,” and in “Handcarved Coffins” the wine gives off “ruby flickerings.” Capote’s fiction is full of ruby flickerings, moments of jeweled repose which take place between the slashings and the infidelities. But the glinting embellishments are never more than decorative; Capote’s prosy-poetic brushwork represents a strained effort to elevate the True Detective material—to give it a Raymond Chandlerish finish. Snow for example falls with Joycean significance, prompting “thoughts of mortality, the evaporation of time,” and a messianic evangelist who reminds Capote of the suspected killer is symbolically named Bobby Joe Snow.
Yet for all the classic European short-story traceries, “Handcarved Coffins” is trying to say something starkly despairing: that all men are killers, predators. Quoting Mark Twain, the detective tracking the killer says that man is the most detestable creature on earth—the only creature that “inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain.” And it isn’t only the most depraved who are capable of beastliness—violence is implicit even in the most loving of entanglements.* Or as Sarah’s smoothheeled husband says in “Mojave,” “We all, sometimes, leave each other out there under the skies, and we never understand why.”
What makes “Handcarved Coffins” absorbing pulp but unsatisfying as art is that Capote never explores the depths of murderous passion. He springs gruesome murders on the reader, then retreats into ruby flickerings and irrelevant list-making, at one point informing us that after an absence from New York, he found in his icebox black bananas, rotten eggs, shriveled oranges, and a chocolate cake covered with fungus. (No frozen kitties in his fridge.) And though the novella is labeled “nonfiction,” the details are so fuzzy and the murders so far-fetched that you begin to wonder whether fact and fiction aren’t bubbling together in the same pot. Did everything happen the way Capote reports, or did he diddle with the truth to provide goose-pimply shocks and give his account the shapeliness of a short story? Certainly at times Capote seems to be up to his old tics. When he meets the suspected killer, for example, he notices his gray eyes, shrewd peasant face, and Rachmaninoff-like hands. Anything else? This: “Tufts of grey hair sprouted from his nostrils and his ears.”
In one of Lily Tomlin’s monologues, Ernestine the Telephone Operator (one ring-a-dingy, two ring-a-dingy) boasts that she services everyone from the President of the United States to “the scum of the earth.” Capote takes similar pride in being able to penetrate every shadowy nook of society, from the drawing rooms of illustrious artists (Cocteau, Gide) to maximum-security cells housing killers and rapists. First published in Andy Warhol’s Interview, “Then It All Came Down” finds Capote in San Quentin chatting with a real s.-o.-t.-e. specimen, convicted murderer Robert Beausoleil. A former protégé of homoerotic avant-gardist Kenneth Anger, Beausoleil was convicted of the torture-murder of a Topanga Canyon musician; he was also associated with the Manson gang. He’s also an erotic artist of small renown, his pet subject: nympho cherubs doing naughty things with their mouths. Kenneth Anger, introducing Beausoleil’s work to the readers of a porn glossy called Puritan, writes, “Bobby Beausoleil is a Scorpio. And what a Scorpio! He also is an artistic genius. He also happens to be in prison…. Why is a long story; suffice to say that other geniuses have landed in stir: I’m thinking of the Marquis de Sade and Jean Genet.” Even connoisseurs of evil ought to make clearer distinctions.
To reassure Beausoleil, perhaps to impress him, Capote starts rattling off the names of famous assassins and their victims. “I know Sirhan, and I knew Robert Kennedy. I knew Lee Harvey Oswald, and I knew Jack Kennedy. The odds against that—one person knowing all four of those men—must be astounding.” Not only that, adds Capote, but I knew four of the five people murdered at the Tate house. “I’d met Sharon Tate at the Cannes Film Festival. Jay Sebring cut my hair a couple of times. I’d had lunch once in San Francisco with Abigail Folger and her boyfriend, Frykowski.”
Capote’s namedropping suggests a creepy new form of oneupmanship—Victims I Have Known—and you suspect that he is showing off for the slumming Interview audience, which regards criminals as resplendently-tattooed primitives…butchy hunks. But give Capote his due: even a limbering-up exercise like this obliquely expresses his vision of life as a river of murderous woe. Squatting near the riverbank, the suspected killer of “Handcarved Coffins” raises his hand and between his spread fingers the river seems to weave “like a dark ribbon.” And Beausoleil, reflecting on the Manson murders, declares, “Everything in life is good. It all flows. It’s all good. It’s all music.” It’s all music for chameleons.
The rest of the book tends to slapstick and gossip. Capote shares a pay-toilet with a sleek black chorus boy in “Derring-Do,” switching clothes with the kid in order to slip through Los Angeles International Airport unrecognized (he’s trying to elude the cops on a contempt-of-court rap). “A Beautiful Child” is a reminiscence of a spring afternoon spent in 1955 with Marilyn Monroe, and once again that blur of blonde fluff emerges as a frail tabby mewing Adopt me, adopt me at the author’s feet. Adorably helpless, Monroe brings out a tender celestial mistiness in writers usually known for their tough-minded smarts: At the end of Marilyn Norman Mailer urged Monroe to look up Mr. Dickens; and at the wind-up of “A Beautiful Child,” Capote has her ascending heavenward, fading with the waning light of dusk. Before the ascension, however, a lot of celebrity dirt is spread.
After excerpts from Answered Prayers were published in Esquire, Capote and his admirers argued that gossip is the germ of all art, that betraying confidences and pressing one’s ear against the whorehouse wall is the undignified duty of every novelist, great and minor. What, they asked, is Remembrance of Things Past but a gigantic slab of fanatically detailed gossip? We are, it seems, supposed to find Proustian significance in Marilyn Monroe’s confession that she once saw Errol Flynn play “You Are My Sunshine” on the piano with his penis. Or Proustian subtlety in this exchange:
TC: …By any chance are you under the delusion that you’re Queen Elizabeth.
TC: Queen Elizabeth. The Queen of England.
Marilyn (frowning): What’s that cunt got to do with it?
Nuggets like these may enliven a dull party, but on the printed page they’re as juvenile as joy-buzzers and whoopee cushions. And must we be told that Capote tries to masturbate himself to sleep? From the interior monologue “Nocturnal Turnings”: “Sometimes I wonder: Whatever would we do without Mother Fist and her Five Daughters? They’ve certainly been a friendly bunch to us through the years. Real pals.” Yes, they’ve probably been swell, still….
Capote is at his best not when he’s doing buzzard duty or dusting off his scrapbooks (“I remember having a conversation on this subject with the late E.M. Forster…,” “Soon after the suicide of the esteemed Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, whom I knew well…”), but when he’s hovering at the edges, letting someone else scheme or complain. He can be an excellent straight man, slipping in sly observations as his female co-star pursues a whim or worry like a piece of loose thread. For all its echoes of Isherwood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains Capote’s freshest work, I think, a triumphant display of his gift for mischief and his affection for the rootless misfits seduced by Manhattan’s cool, expensive shimmer.
Tucked away in Music for Chameleons is a comic miniature which has Tiffany’s impudent gleam: “A Day’s Work,” a “conversational portrait” of a fifty-seven-year-old cleaning woman named Mary Sanchez. One wet April morning, Capote tags along as Mary goes on her daily rounds, beginning with a brownstone apartment on East Seventy-third. Inside: Grime, disarray. “Not a clean sheet in the house!” exclaims Mary indignantly. “And look at that bed! Mayonnaise! Chocolate! Crumbs, crumbs, chewing gum, cigarette butts. Lipstick!” Piled near a broken toilet is a stack of stroke magazines; scattered across the floor are hundreds of empty vodka miniatures.
TC: What does he do?
TC: That explains it. He gets these little bottles free.
Mary: Yeah? How come? He’s not a steward. He’s a pilot.
TC: Oh, my God.
As Mary and TC trudge from apartment to apartment, it becomes clear Capote is up to something brilliantly sneaky: speculating about the lives of people who exist for him only as ghosts and off-stage noises. He’s engaging in pop-archaeology, extrapolating the drift of people’s lives by sifting for clues buried in their intimate debris (cocktail napkins, soiled pillowcases). And as Mary and TC do their dig, Capote seems to shrink before our eyes, turning into a precocious rascal playing hookey from the responsibilities of adulthood—as happy as Huck Finn napping in the clover. Later, after Capote gets stoned on Mary’s Peruvian grass, he’s like a tipsy kid who’s just raided Dad’s liquor cabinet; his whole world becomes a woozy teeter-totter ride.
Like most sprees, however, this one has a sober finish. In the parlor of Mr. and Mrs. Berkowitz, a surrealistic parrot called (what else?) Polly chirps Oy vey! Oy vey! as Mary and TC help themselves to cupcakes and “fist-sized” scoops of pistachio ice cream. Stoned and sated, this unlikely couple starts dancing to a pounding Salsa beat…and then (it’s a sitcom predicament) the grown-ups come home.
Polly: Holy cow!
Woman’s voice: What is this? What’s happening here?
Polly: Oy vey! Oy vey!
Mary: Why, hello there, Mrs. Berkowitz. Mr. Berkowitz. How ya doin’?
(And there they are, hovering in view like the Mickey and Minnie Mouse balloons in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade….)
Accused of drunkenness, Mary quits, and she and TC again brave the rain.
Mary: Didn’t I tell you they were stuffy.
TC: Belong in a museum.
With Mary, Our Lady of Urban Sorrows, Capote achieves an almost churchly calm, and the story ends with the clicking of rosary beads, prayers. “Please, Lord,” she petitions, “help Mr. Trask to stop boozing and get his job back. Please, Lord, don’t leave Miss Shaw a bookworm and an old maid; she ought to bring your children into this world.”
With Mary’s entreaties wafting toward heaven, we return to St. Theresa’s warning about answered prayers—and to Answered Prayers itself, a novel which, like Harold Brodky’s A Feast of Animals and Norman Mailer’s Egyptian opus, hovers resistantly on the horizon. Music for Chameleons is really a teaser for Answered Prayers, a splashy interlude before the grand finale. Answered Prayers may prove to be the Proustian masterwork Capote has long promised, but it’s disconcerting to read interviews in which he boasts about how many people are going to be upset by the book when it finally appears. There’s a threatening edge to his remarks, as if he’s intent upon dragging skeletons across the carpet to settle old scores. Plank by plank Capote may be assembling his own ship of fools; then again, he may be whistling the hours away in his workshop, whittling tiny coffins.
September 25, 1980