Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In Cold Blood: A Gay Man's Reading

Today I finished reading Truman Capote's In Cold Blood for the very first time. It is a book I put on my "29 Books for 29 Years" 2011 reading list. Before reading, I was fairly familiar with Capote and had read quite a few of his others works. I also knew quite a bit about his life. I've seen the films Capote and Infamous and have done my own reading on him, so I came to the book with a fair understanding of what to expect and the basic story he was going to tell, but nothing prepared me for his amazing ability to paint the figures of this true story from the Clutters to Dick and Perry to the various townspeople.

The book truly is a masterpiece. The language is powerful, specific, and often quite beautiful. It is also a great book to examine from a writer's perspective. How do you tell this story when most people already know the ending? We know they will get caught. We know they did it. We know they will hang. But Capote somehow manages to pull us into the story and make us see it from all angles. This isn't a suspenseful "whodunit," but rather a careful examination of a particular crime and the effects on everyone involved.

Rarely do you see murderers in such a truthful and fair light. We know Dick and Perry are guilty. We hear their confessions and the gruesome details of their crime. We know that both don't have the amount of remorse or shame that one might want or expect, but at the same time these figures are very real and very honest and we actually like them (or at least I did). The sympathy or liking the reader might have for these men is carefully spliced with the lives these men took and the toll it takes on a small town and the detectives burdened with solving the crime. In many ways, I didn't really feel the need to pick sides. My understanding was there for nearly all the characters in the book because of Capote's writing.

Capote is careful and generous with all the people who appear in book, but as you read you do feel that Perry emerges as a central character. I felt the most for him in the book even though he is the one who pulled the trigger and killed the four victims. There are many reasons for Perry surfacing in this way. There is some evidence Capote was in love Perry or, at least, clearly liked him better than Dick and felt more sympathy for him. Perhaps this made Capote compelled to feature him in a central way. It might also be that Perry is the most fascinating character in the book. He's the most complicated and the one that challenges our ideas of justice and criminal behavior. Perry doesn't fit into a box. The crime itself was so unnecessary, random, and absurd, which makes it all the more terrifying. What made Perry do this? As a reader, you want to find out and understand.

One reason I really wanted to read this book is because I've spent the last year or so writing and putting together a poetry book manuscript that I hope will be my first book and that explores various violent crimes and the gay man's interest or fasciation or connection with death and violence. The manuscript contains my long poem about Jeffrey Dahmer as well as poems dealing with hate crimes, car accidents, HIV/AIDS, and a series of poems I wrote based on my own interactions (through letters) with a gay porn star who is serving 20 years in prison for assaulting an elderly couple. I actually reference Capote and Perry in a couple of the poems. It seemed from all this, it was time to read this book.

As I read the book, I couldn't help but think about Capote writing it and what got him so interested in this crime. Horrible things happen everyday. Brutal crimes are committed, but this one grabbed Capote and he saw a masterpiece in his head. The fact that the book is fair to the criminals is also striking. Capote, who was a very effeminate gay man, found something human and interesting in these men. Men others wanted to pass off as horrible monsters. I have to wonder if part of the fasincation comes from the fact that he was gay. As gay people we are treated as outsiders like criminals are. In the 50s and 60s, we were even more so (many were actually arrested as criminals for their "unnatural" behavior). I am not saying that gay people are like murderers or that we should all band together, but I do think there is something to the idea of connecting to the misunderstood or hated, even if you are misunderstood or hated for very different reasons.

Capote didn't shut these men out. He wanted to hear their stories. What would In Cold Blood look like if a straight man had written it? There is no way of telling for sure, but I imagine it would be a very different tale. In this way, Capote is a vital part of the story he is telling even though he doesn't appear in the book itself.

Capote is someone I have always been interested in and someone I admire for his openness and his refusal to be anything but who he was. He also had a very distinctive way of speaking, so as someone who has always been made fun of for my voice, I find a special kinship with him.

If you haven't ever read In Cold Blood, I highly recommend it. I also recommend the film Capote. It gives some interesting insights into the writing of the book and raises fascinating ethical questions about writing books based on true events and people. In the end, the book connected with me and my own writing project and for that I'm thankful to have read it.

-Stephen (Hot)

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