The Complete Stories

capoteThe Short Version: Compiling, as the title would imply, all of Truman Capote’s short stories – from his debut pieces (1943 is the earliest) to stories from the 1980s and even a lost story only published in 2012. Some are spooky, many are heartfelt, and all capture some amount of the essence that makes Capote such a curiously lasting figure in our literary canon.

The Review: Everyone knows Truman Capote – he’s got not one but two entries in the ranks of true classics, with Breakfast at Tiffany’s representing fiction and In Cold Blood representing non-fiction – but it’s rather curious how little else most people know of Capote beyond those two works. There’s the Phil Hoffman portrayal, I suppose, but that’s sharply related to In Cold Blood and so the legend continues to build around those two particular works. But Capote registers as a figure in the literary pantheon, not just as the author of two great works – whereas Harper Lee, for example, is known first and foremost for her work and much less so for her persona. So “what else did Capote do?” feels like a reasonable question to ask – and I think it’s one that’s answered by The Complete Stories.

Structured chronologically, from the first story Capote sold as a 19 year old to one of the very last he wrote (as well as a posthumously released story that might’ve been a lost chapter of his unfinished final novel), we see the development of Capote’s voice – and we can also track, in the way that writing reveals certain truths about the author, the development of Capote as a person.

Of course, this wouldn’t matter if the stories weren’t good. There are a few duds here and there, some stories that I found myself skimming or even skipping – but by and large, these stories (purportedly the entire oeuvre, although there’s been a recent ‘discovery’ of several early stories that’ve been packaged and released by Random House, somewhat undercutting the truth of this collection’s title) are wonderful. Capote’s gift at Southern Gothic tone as well as his knack for capturing the despondent inner lives of New York’s well-to-do reveals an incisive mind, a natural storyteller but also a keen observer. I wonder how many of these tales are true, or rooted in truth, beyond anything we might superficially observe.

There are some where the reality is obvious – “A Christmas Memory”, for example, is clearly and specifically given an autobiographical bent – and then there are others where Truman seems to be a character of sorts, or at least we’re allowed to imply that he might be. It’s often the narration that makes us feel this way. “Children on Their Birthdays”, for example: Capote seems to be recounting something, not telling a story. It’s as though he was asked at a party to tell a story from his past and this one was what he chose. Similarly “Jug of Silver” and of course “Yachts and Things” (which is the posthumous story); all of these have Capote-as-narrator as a distinct part of their voice and story.

The thing that I think surprised me the most was how downright spooky Capote could be. Several of these stories, especially in the first half of the collection, are right up there with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Joyce Carol Oates as masterfully unsettling Gothic tales. Ghostly children, creepy old people, night trains, and so on; these are not at all what I was expecting to find in this collection and yet I was delighted upon uncovering them. “Miriam” and “Shut a Final Door” (and perhaps “A Tree of Night”) in particular are stories I’m excited to return to in the fall, with an eye towards adding them to the roster of the best Halloween scary stories.

Speaking of discoveries, it was fascinating to see how, over the passage of time, ideas and scenes begin to recur. “The Bargain”, for example, feels almost like an update of “A Mink of One’s Own” – an attempt to write the same story slightly differently, perhaps. The dark precocious child becomes almost a trope by the end of the collection and the particular unhappiness of nearly every coupling to be found (be they marriages, flings, or even friendships) shows a fascination that grew and developed as Capote’s life went on. We even see a particular growth in his writing style: the first few stories are clearly early attempts that don’t lack for promise but don’t perhaps show the strongest execution. Yet you can see the talent there and it’s delightful to read these in order and see that talent blossom and mature. And on a line by line basis, Capote has several perfectly crafted quotes in just about every story – he calls to mind Oscar Wilde in his ability to deploy a bon mot or even just an unexpected analysis of an otherwise trivial moment.

This doesn’t mean that, as he got older, he lost all of his unevenness. The stories of Capote’s personal life, especially in the wake of In Cold Blood, are hard to shake off and it’s clear that his life affected his work. Even without those external factors, some of the stories just seem clichéd or somehow off. “House of Flowers”, for example, is full of beautiful prose but it also feels like an odd kind of cultural tourism – and “Master Misery” has a moral that feels altogether too obvious and on the nose, especially in its reveal. But again, there are lines in even these stories that make them still well worth reading.

Rating: 5 out of 5. A fantastic look at an author’s entire life, essentially, through his short writings. The skillful storyteller we all know from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood is there in the early stories, just as yet unpolished – and those two more famous tales are altered and made more interesting by the discoveries in some of the later stories, like how skilled Capote is at writing truly spooky Southern Gothic. Sometimes complete works can be too uneven to be pleasant and while there are certainly some ups and downs here, this one feels like it’s absolutely worth one’s while to read the whole thing. It’ll show you things you never knew before about an author whose personality has come to sometimes outshine his work.

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