Story of the Month, July 2009

One of only a couple covers for the book In Cold Blood. Thanks to Marshall University for the use of this image.

One of only a couple covers for the book In Cold Blood. Thanks to Marshall University for the use of this image.

When I started taking classes at Columbia College, I thought that all I wrote was fiction. Then I took a class called “Creative Nonfiction,” which surveyed different nonfiction forms: the memoir (and, in a similar vein, the autobiography), the personal essay, journalism–in its many forms, and the nonfiction novel. As an example of the last form, we were assigned to read Truman Capote’s epic nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. And it was reading this book–as well as what I learned from taking the Creative Nonfiction class–that helped me realize that I, myself, am a creative nonfiction writer. It changed the way that I look at my writing. I guess you could say that it changed my life. And not only did it help my writing, but the story also wrecked me…in a wonderful way. That is why I have chosen Capote’s In Cold Blood as That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for July 2009.

Allow me to start off by saying that In Cold Blood is by no means a gory or horrific book. (And neither is the movie adaptation of the book, though rumors about it would say otherwise). Although it started off as a story about the effects of murder on a small town, Capote’s book slowly evolved into a story about the overlooked humanity of murderers. It explores the murders of the four Clutter family members in Holcomb, Kansas in November 1959, how the community reacted to them, how the murderers were caught and tried, and finally why the murders even took place. It is a true account of real events.

The book begins with a sweeping view of Holcomb in Finney County, Kansas (which also includes Garden City, another town often referred to in the book). Then it zooms in to two seemingly separate plotlines: that of Herb Clutter and his wife and two children on their farm in Holcomb, and that of two ex-convicts, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock as they’re driving. Then the two storylines dovetail, and we discover that the two latter “characters” were driving to Holcomb to murder the Clutters. Any motivation to commit the murders, besides that of robbing the family, is still unclear. This unanswered question, and the pursuit of answering it, is a driving force throughout the book.

I believe that Capote’s research for this nonfiction novel actually helped “solve” the crime. (If you’ve seen the 2005 movie Capote starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, then you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t seen this movie, then I highly recommend that you do so. As the movie is not an adaptation of the book–and thus won’t spoil your reading of it–its depiction of Capote’s life and how he went about writing this book will only enhance your reading of it.) Capote used his interviewing skills as a writer to probe into the psyches Perry and Dick–but mostly Perry. He befriended them in order to learn their motives for killing the Clutters. His book wouldn’t be complete until he knew why the murders took place, or until Perry and Dick were either found not guilty of or executed for the four counts of murder. But his blossoming friendship with the men made it psychologically exhausting to continue writing, as well as to wait for their sentence. This put Capote in a difficult position. But, if it weren’t for these interviews, we’d never have learned what made the charming Dick and the pitiful Perry commit murder. And although it all made for a thrilling book, Capote’s involvement in the Clutter case took a serious toll on the writer; he was never able to finish writing another book.

As a writer, the fact that In Cold Blood essentially ruined Capote really gets to me. He knew that his book would be huge, but it ended up being so huge that he could never top it. This nonfiction novel, this work of New Journalism*, changed the way that the literary world viewed nonfiction and journalism. Capote used his skills as a fiction writer (including a strong sense of voice, scene, dialogue, point of view, vantage point) to tell the story of two murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, which he pieced together through first-person interviews with these men. And he told the story in a lively and dramatic way, a quality we’d expect from a fiction story. This book was revolutionary to the world of writing.

But, more importantly, this book evokes a multitude of emotions. Most noticeably, for me, was the sympathy I started feeling for both Perry and Dick, but mostly Perry. Through Capote’s interviews with Perry, the former was able to weave Perry’s back story into the larger story of In Cold Blood. It flushed out the story, as well as Perry’s “character.” He had a rough life, growing up with rather unstable parents that separated while he was still young. He was always in and out of jail. He had no real relationships with anyone in his life, including his family, except for a rocky relationship with his father and a twisted friendship with his prisonmate Dick. And Perry’s physical appearance warrants sympathy, too; after a motorcycle accident that shattered his leg, Perry always walked with a noticeable limp that left him in constant pain and with an aspirin addiction. His life was miserable, plain and simple. And even though he did a terrible thing–or, should I say, four terrible things–I can’t help but be sympathetic toward him.

In the movie Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote says to Perry, “If I leave here without understanding you, the world will see you as a monster. Always. And I don’t want that.” And, somehow, Capote prevented this. At no point in this book did I hold contempt for Perry. In fact, I always pitied him. I even found myself wanting to reach out to him, which is probably the same way that Capote felt. But my sympathy for Perry alarmed me. Why am I sympathetic toward a murderer? How could I condone his behavior? But, the more I thought about it, I realized that sympathy and acceptance are two different things. Capote depicted Perry’s humanity on the page for me, and I was receptive to it. But Capote also depicted the horrible things that Perry did, which I don’t approve of. I can like Perry as a person without defending his actions. But that puts me in a strange ethical position. I never thought that I could find a murderer likeable, but Perry proved me wrong. And when Perry meets his fate at the end of the book, there was no way that I could hold back the steady stream of tears that had been collecting since I first met him at the beginning of the book. Somehow, thought I still don’t quite know how, Capote helped me see Perry for something other than a monster.

 So, if you pick up In Cold Blood, be prepared for a book that will rock you to the core. It will change the way you look at reading and writing. It will change the way you look at murder, murderers, victims, investigators, and the entire court system. And, if you let it, it will make you question your morals and the way you think. So be prepared for the possibility that you’ll sympathize with the murderers, especially Perry, and that you’ll be left questioning your own thoughts about murder, redemption, and justice. After all, great books make you see the world, and yourself, differently. And Capote’s brilliant story is no exception. 

* Basically, New Journalism is a way of writing nonfiction material in an interesting, engaging way that reads like a fun fictional story and is loaded with the author’s voice. Some of the first works of this writing movement were John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.
Published in: on July 2, 2009 at 1:38 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: , ,

Top 10 Classics, According to That’s Classic!

Any Top 10 list of classics would be highly subjective, just like any list of Top 10 albums or movies would be. (Is it any wonder why the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies list changed so much in ten years’ time?) It all really comes down to personal preference and what you look for when you pick up a book. Action? Drama? Dialogue? Scene? Characters? Mind candy? Well, chances are, if you’re looking merely for mind candy, then you’ll be disappointed with this Top 10 list. Because this list is all about books that stretch your mind and your beliefs and your morals. This list has books that change you, that take you on a journey, that reveal something about life—and yourself—to you. This is my list of Top 10 Classics. These are the books that have changed my life. I hope that you’ll give them a chance to change your life, too. And, this goes without saying, they all come with my highest recommendation. (Complete analysis soon to follow.)

  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky-I can’t help but put this epic of classic literature at the top of my list. C&P follows Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a young ex-university student who, like most of those around him, can barely get by. He convinces himself that he is a “superman,” and therefore doesn’t need to follow the same moral code as everyone else. As a result of this belief, he plans to murder a local pawnbroker, someone who he feels has wronged him and many others by paying small amounts for their prized possessions they must sell to survive. When he does finally kill the pawnbroker, her sister catches him, so Raskolnikov has no choice but to kill the sister, a murder he had not planned on. He spends the rest of the book battling his conscious and madness–which are perhaps the same thing–as he weighs his options. To confess or not to confess? To succumb to guilt or prove to himself that he is indeed a superman and without guilt? While the setting of this book is foreign to modern-day readers, Raskolnikov’s struggle with his own guilt and mortality are things that today’s readers can understand, or at least relate to. Dostoevsky writes with such honesty and really explores the human mind. He is able to sway our prior convictions about murderers and convinces us to sympathize with Raskolnikov and his moral ambiguity. For more about this masterpiece, please see the Story of the Month, December 2008 by clicking here.
  2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  3. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
  7. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  8. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  9. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
  10. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov-This book completely took me by surprise. I had heard mixed reviews of it; I think people either hate it or love it. There’s a similar reaction to the book’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert: people either hate him or love him (in a manner of speaking). There’s no real surprise there. Humbert’s a man in his thirties who seems “normal” to everyone he meets but confesses to us readers (in Nabokov’s expertly-crafted novel-as-mock-deposition) his deepest and darkest pedophilic thoughts. In this almost journal-like novel, Humbert re-tells his sexual history including how he met, seduced, and carried on a relationship with the pre-teen Lolita. As disturbing as that may sound, it is nevertheless a wonderfully written book. The reason this book surprised me so much was that I really liked Humbert. I found him unbelievably interesting and clever and oh-so-charming. Like Dostoevsky teaches us to accept and even like Raskolnikov, Nabokov teaches us to at least listen to the ever-amusing Humbert Humbert. He is truly one of the most interesting characters that I’ve ever encountered.

Great Works of Creative Nonfiction

These are some of the best examples of creative nonfiction that I have ever encountered. Some are memoirs and some are completely researched and outside of the author’s own experience. Either way, these are book-length works of literary nonfiction that are noteworthy and deserving of praise (or at least a read-through).

  1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966) – If you let it, this book will change your life. Beautifully crafted, cleverly arranged, and resourcefully researched, this book is part of the New Journalism movement*. Capote used his skills as a fiction writer (including a strong sense of voice, scene, dialogue, point of view, vantage point) to tell the story of two murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, which he pieced together through first-person interviews with these men. Capote captured, on the page, how Dick and Perry planned to murder the Clutter family, committed the crime, fled the state, and were ultimately arrested and tried for the murder of the family of four. By leaving New York for Holcomb, Kansas, where the murders took place, Capote threw himself into the lives of friends and family of the Clutters, using interviews with them to flush out his story. Originally a story about how a seemingly motiveless and “perfect” murder disrupts the lives of a small-town population, the book slowly morphed into a story of murder and a character study of murderers, and how situations are never completely black and white. Be prepared to sympathize with the murderers, especially Perry, and to question your own thoughts about murder, redemption, and justice. (NOTE: In conjunction with reading this book, be sure to check out Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portayal of the author in the 2005 film Capote. As the movie is not an adaptation of the book–and thus won’t spoil your reading of it–its depiction of Capote’s life and how he went about writing this book will only enhance your reading of it.)
  2. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979) – Another fantastic example of New Journalism*, this book chronicles the birth of NASA, the space program, and even the great Space Race. Wolfe interviewed astronauts (who, while in the military and in their pre-NASA days, were referred to as “fighter jocks”), their wives, and various other military and NASA personnel to compose this fascinating book. Even if you’re not that interested in space flight or astronauts or NASA, Wolfe’s authoratative and witty voice is sure to intrigue you and keep you turning page after page. This is a book, like In Cold Blood, this was created out of a copious amount of research, yet still reads like a novel, rather than as a textbook. Give the first chapter a quick read and see what you think. Chances are, you won’t be able to put the book down. It’s worth mentioning that the first chapter is highly praised and, I’ve been told, widely anthologized. (NOTE: Do not see the film adaptation until after you’ve read the book. Although it is closely tied to the book, it is significantly less satisfying than the book version. It’s a difficult movie to follow unless you have background information from Wolfe’s book, because much explanation of characters and places and events are left out of the movie. If you must watch anything, then check out the Discovery Channel’s documentary series When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions. This program covers every single space mission from the birth of NASA to the present and includes interviews with almost all surviving astronauts and even some of the key players from Mission Control. This will prove a much more satisfying supplement to your reading of The Right Stuff.)
* Basically, New Journalism is a way of writing nonfiction material in an interesting, engaging way that reads like a fun fictional story and is loaded with the author’s voice. See Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe for more examples of New Journalism.