Philip Seymour Hoffman portrayed Capote in the biopic with the same title. It focuses on the years when the author was writing his book In Cold Blood. His acting got the nods of the Academy Award jurors. This performance is laudable, but I must say that in the film, I am more intrigued by the epilogue where it is said that Capote, in his last unfinished novel’s epigraph, chose this: More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.
As if the film isn’t devastating enough. What is with this book? It is, according to Capote, the novel of the decade that would keep the literary tongues wagging for his genius in coming up with a new genre, the nonfiction novel. I agree, and it is more than a sensation. It is an event hardly ignorable for the cunning stringing of facts that created a compelling novel about the murder of the Clutter family that set the “out there” Holcomb, Kansas into a key town of the United States. That is, at least, in the world of letters.
But we do not go and read the Clutters’ family history with accounts of the parents’ childhoods and all that. Yes, we are given basic information regarding the Clutters’ stature in the town and a background of how they came to be. The novel sheds more light instead on the murderers, Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith. More so, it makes us see what drives a murderer to commit an act so violent and that is apparently devoid of any motive. Surely, we have our own preconceived notions of murderers, but is the description below, spoken by an outsider, a proper “characterization” of one?
“And that night, of all nights, we had to leave him alone, Wendle and I almost never go out, but we had a long-standing engagement, and Wendle didn’t think we ought to break it. But I’ll always be sorry we left him alone. Next day I did fix the rice. He wouldn’t touch it. Or hardly speak to me. He hated the whole world. But the morning the men came to take him to the penitentiary, he thanked me and gave me a picture of himself. A little Kodak made when he was sixteen years old. He said it was how he wanted me to remember him, like the boy in the picture.”
The novel opens with a description of that town even Kansans barely know. Far-flung, quiet, almost idyllic, it is the kind of town whose silence is laboriously detailed as an evidence of its only redeeming quality, for soon enough, after finishing the first quarter of the novel, this very silence is irrevocably shattered by four shots at the dead of the night.
The reader thinks he knows what’s going on. True, Dick and Perry kill the Clutters, but is that enough? The reader knows and he doesn’t know. We do not bother to read this to find more details about the crime as if one were a federal crime investigator. In fact, the scene of the crime is incapable of producing any hard evidence. The crime is not even solved by the heads of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. So what is there to expect from this?
We get quite close to the murderers’ heads, and this creates a sympathy so surprising for what they did can be hardly condoned. We go through a montage of their cross-state and cross-country sprees, hitching rides, stealing cars, siphoning gas from other cars, selling cars. And then hitching rides again, repeating the same cycle until their itinerary is abruptly cut by their capture.
And then their confession, their imprisonment, their trial, their death.
The pages go through the psychological make-up of the murderers as they careen through the bleak flat lands of America. We think what a world power this country is, but what we are given are long stretches of roads that go on and on with occasional crimes that are most likely left unsolved. Had Capote not noticed a small column on the paper briefly describing the crime, the murder of the Clutters would not have been worth mentioning and its violence could have been easily lost as fast as the settling dust of America’s forgotten highways.
But no. The details produced by the years of research Capote spent allowed him to frame a documentary and use his tools as a novelist to erect the foundation of a colossal book that defies genres. We are gripped by the murders, slightly because the things we are reading happened out there once upon a time, and mostly because of both the involvement and detachment of probably one of the loneliest persons to ever receive the capital punishment, Perry Smith.
And we wonder still: is this creative writing? Or journalism? It doesn’t matter, and that is always the case for something that has left you both transfixed with its unflinching storytelling and unsettled with its sneaky way of shaking your own judgments. Indeed, this is one rare book that allows fact to overpower fiction. It is Capote’s answered prayer. He got what he wished for, and he was never the same again.