There have been recent efforts to recall that once upon a time Truman Capote was a writer who seemed to matter. The movies “Capote” (2005) and “Infamous” (2006) focused on the production of his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood that had a large (not all good) impact. The recent Collected Stories showed how slender is body of stories he wrote before alcoholism and journalism and courting the New York elite extinguished his career as a writer of fiction.
As I wrote about the wispy but sometimes accomplished writing collected in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it is very difficult for anyone who saw the Truman Capote freak performances on “The Late Show “during the last decade-plus of Capote’s life pickled in equal parts alcohol and vitriol to block that sound and image and read his controlled earlier prose. Part of what was eating away at him during the eighteen years between the successes of In Cold Blood and his death was his failure to deliver the big book he contracted that was supposed to crown his career and make him the American rival of Proust. Like the even longer-announced and also much awaited masterpiece from Ralph Ellison, Capote never completed his summa. Ellison had a lot of segments and failed to find any way to tie them together. Of Capote’s novel, there was nothing found in his papers after his death except the rambling bits he had published separately: three alleged chapters in Esquire and one out-take from the supposed novel that was included in Music for the Chameleons.
For the gleanings that constitute AnsweredPrayers Capote’s agent, Joseph Fox, provided an introduction to the book publications of the three Esquire pieces. Why were there no drafts of the other parts, some of which Capote talked about in great detail? Fox believes Capote destroyed them: “He had great pride in his work,, but also an unusual objectivity about it, and my suspicion is that at some point he destroyed every vestige of whatever chapters he’d written other than the three in this volume.” I might believe this if those three chapters were jewels. Instead, I believe they were never written. (I believed this before the blank yellow legal-pad pages shown in “Infamous,” not least in that Capote also talked about In Cold Blood in detail before he had written it.)
“Unspoiled Monsters,” the first and longest (93 pages) has little in the way of structure but has some interesting material and some development of a narrator who is a “never was” rather than a “has been” like Capote. P. B. Jones has the vulgarity of the older Capote in his cups (“in his cups” may be redundant for “the older Capote”). Although slashing, instead of being a vicious old queen, P. B. Jones is sufficiently young and attractive and able to function sexually with women to make money as a gigolo. That is, he is a less successful writer and less effeminate than his creator. Both drop names in torrents (indeed, there are many lists in this book). Capote sketches something of a current squalid milieu (a YMCA and an escort agency called “Self Service”) for Jones, though the other characters from the novel’s present are cardboard types. The flashbacks involve some real people I recognize, particularly Denys Fouts, a legendary kept man about whom Christopher Isherwood and Gore Vidal also wrote (better!).
The first chapter is not great, but it is not terrible. The other two chapters are terrible. I find the title character of “Kate McCloud” at once dull and unbelievable. The nasty stories overheard lunching at “La Côte Basque” are barely disguised, but I find it hard to believe that Gloria Vanderbilt and her school chum Carol Matthau would be telling them at lunch, since they would already have known the stories and would also be aware of a hack writer eavesdropping on them. I guess is in some sense structured by the course of a meal, and the nasty remarks about other lunchers are obviously Capote, but what he chooses to have various women tell is not credible.
By the end of the sad display of how little of the supposed great novel was written and how ungreat that is, I think that the agent who dumps Jones, telling him that his “lack of discipline and consistent unevenness that suggest professionalism is beyond you” applies to Capote as well. He had practically no inventiveness and had lost the sense of structure he had early on. He could still turn phrases and write some alliterative sentences, and recount the most vicious versions of factual stories, but if he really still had the objectivity Fox claims, he would have destroyed these chapters. Instead, he published them during his lifetime, outraging those whose lives he put on display and further diminishing the reputation as a major writer that his television performances (not to forget his turn in “Murder by Death”!) destroyed. So…there is no need to try to banish the drunken monster speaking with drunken disdain to Johnny Carson, because that Capote is the same person who wrote and published these insults to the brain (borrowing a title from one of the lost or never written other chapters).
In that Esquire had already made the “stories” available to the public, the book did not need to be published to establish there was not much there. But in that Capote made the decision to publish them (against the advice of his agent and everyone else apprised of his intent) the publication is not like the three novels Hemingway considered inadequate that have been published since his death. Although Capote did not delude himself that the materials were a book, he did judge them publishable and none of the labor of others to pull together unpublished material of the string of posthumous Hemingway novels or Ellison’s manuscript occurred. The best part of AnsweredPrayers is Fox’s introduction, but IMHO it does not suffice to justify publication of the book.