Nov 19, 2009

Roy Prepares a Capital Meal

men's book club group discussion review of In Cold Blood Truman Capote

Dinner last night was a superb feast of midwestern fusion. With a nod to In Cold Blood’s western Kansas setting, but with a decided bias towards his own state of Indiana, Roy delivered roast chicken, roast pork, and roast ribs—all Manhattan style. The accompanying sides were tastily updated renditions of 1950’s staples: green beans, spinach, and scalloped potatoes. Out of fidelity to our book, Roy’s selection of beverages naturally included Orange Blossoms (orange pop and vodka)—a road trip favorite of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. But it was Roy's grappa (distilled using grapes skins and stems from Tom J) and house bourbon that provided the end-of-evening lubricant. Sorry, Paul, but your bottles of Gallo (however clever in the pun department) never made it to the table.

We were missing a few men last night, including our good friend John, whose daughter was undergoing corrective surgery for scoliosis. While he sat at the hospital keeping vigil, we kept one for him (aided by the grappa and bourbon). With Cat’s surgery over and an excellent prognosis ahead, we look forward to having John back in our midst. As for Tom A and Garth, your absences were barely excusable. Next time, when forced to choose between MBC and your children, remember that a high school concert is as easily recorded as attended. And, as for Peter, if you missed our dinner in pursuit of your dream to run a 5-minute mile at age 50, please hang up your spikes and return to the fold at once. A cold, dark high school track is no place for an effete bookman.

The Book
Truman Capote confirmed his reputation as a serious writer with the 1965 publication of In Cold Blood. His so-called “nonfiction novel” about the killings in Holcomb, Kansas mesmerized the nation during its serialization in The New Yorker and divided many on his particular approach to “reportage” (thanks for that reference, Stan). Some objected to his artistic license, and others were offended by his easy familiarity with his subjects. But, for many Americans in 1965, Capote’s gravest offense was to humanize two killers as a rejoinder to (and critique of ) society’s resort to capital punishment. To his critics, the book's title was devoid of its intended irony.

As a group, we were not so divided. Capote’s original take on the Kansas killings was compulsively readable and a fascinating study of time and place. Maybe, as some suggested, we’re too inured to the kind of violence depicted by Capote to be offended by his narrative. Or, like Terry, we’ve read enough true crime (good and bad) to appreciate what a stunning achievement ICB represented in 1965. As for Capote’s politics, his concerns about capital punishment have become today's orthodoxy. Whether we agree with Roy’s fantastically bleak assessment of our penal system, many of us still have stronger misgivings about the execution of criminals than did our parents in 1965.

Capote's novel drew praise from all quarters except Paul, who felt that Capote's account was emotionally flat. Nevertheless, Paul seemed pleased that ICB represented a return to our usual fare of misogynistic, deeply flawed primary characters. During our roundtable rating, it was noted that ICB had the potential to steal top honors from Blindness, our highest rated book to date. So as not to taint the outcome (Bindness was his selection, you may recall), Stan initially abstained from voting only to belatedly insist that his 8 had been ignored. The upshot: ICB tied Blindness during our meeting, but overtook it when I later received Tom A's email giving it a 9. Even counting Stan's 8, Capote's true crime classic eked out an 8.4 and now holds the pole position in the Man Book Club ratings contest.

Next Up
Our next meeting is a joint affair with the women's book group to which some of us are affiliated (by marriage only). Given the choice of reading Truman Capote's enduring novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Bill Bryson's memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, the women ignored one of America's foremost humorists in favor of a book whose brevity and title reference to expensive jewelry seem apt as we enter another holiday season.


  1. Andrew and the Men of MBC-

    Good write up of your meal and the In Cold Blood discussion. Had I been sitting at the table, I may have voted "10" for this ground-breaking non-fiction novel. I truly can think of nowhere that it doesn't deliver, and for me it gets a point to a half point for simply being the first of its kind. In less skillful hands than Capote's, this new genre of true crime might have fallen flat.

    Remember too that forty plus years later, we are so used, so inured, so jaded, to knowing *everything* about every high profile person, famous or infamous. But 1965 was a simpler time: pre Watergate, pre 1968 Democratic convention and race riots, pre Viet Nam hadn't coming to the forefront of the nightly news. Readers then weren't used to the "cold blooded" under the microscope scrutiny of both victims and perps that's nauseatingly commonplace today, for better or worse. Capote was the FIRST to conduct such an investigation then top it off with wonderfully compelling readable prose; it's easy to see how and why ICB is considered a classic,, and why I get such a continued good response when I teach it to seniors.

    Did any of your discussion touch on the crush or deeper feelings Capote had for Perry? In the 21st century, we may not be surprised at such an attraction between writer and subject but in 1965, between two men even, watch out!

    Had any of you seen Philip Seymour Hoffman's "Capote?" Nice parallels and deviations from ICB and the differences between book and film are always worth discussing as the Great Apes prove each of the (nearly) three times a Cormac McCarthy novel is adapted to film. We'll see where "The Road" takes us! Have any of you seen either the black and white or the made for tv version of ICB?

    Sidenote: years ago I taught next door to a colleague who'd grown up and lived in Holcomb at the time of the Clutter murders and once he shared his huge folder of clippings from the days and weeks immediately after the murders. He told me he had hoped to do a book on it one day, but Capote beat him too it!

    Enjoy your second helping of TC in December. Holly Golightly is no Perry or Dick! Once again proving Capote's a master and not limited to a single genre.

    Read on, and will 2010 be the year that MBC and Great Apes meet?

  2. All good points, Jeff. Yes, we did refer to the movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman (George, I think, felt he was poorly cast as Capote)as well as Infamous (Stan's choice among the various adaptations). And while we brought up the unusually close relationship Capote developed with Perry (and Dick), no one seemed to make much of it other than to acknowledge that Capote was flamboyant during an era when it was hardly acceptable, much less understood.

    Your former teaching colleague sounds much like the local teacher/writer quoted early in ICB. Good thing neither of them wasted his time trying to write an account as definitive as ICB.

    I think we're all in for a shock when we read Breakfast at Tiffany's alongside a group of women readers. We'll see.

  3. Good luck with your joint meeting tonight! I am curious to read how it goes and how much book talk there actually is. Who will dominate: male or female readers!?

    I'll check back for your January book pick too!

  4. First guy who sends me a mailing address can borrow my copy of Bad Land for your February meeting.

    Enjoy your holiday and the ski weekend that follows.