The Complete Stories by Truman Capote

Back in July, a couple of bloggers I follow (Ali at Heaven Ali and Lizzi at These Little Words) were reading Truman Capote’s A Capote Reader. I didn’t want to commit to reading such a big volume, but their posts did pique my interest in Capote’s short stories, hence my purchase of The Complete Stories.

This collection consists of twenty stories written between 1943 and 1982, presented in chronological order. I’m not going to try to review each story in turn, but to give a sense of the themes and a little of what I thought of the collection as a whole.

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The settings for Capote’s stories seem to fall into two main camps. Firstly, we have the stories set in the Deep South. A few of these tales feature mysterious, almost fable-like characters – in some instances a strange individual who seems to possess some unfathomable insight or supernatural power over others. In Jug of Silver, for example, a drug-store owner looks to revive interest in his flagging business with a competition to guess the total value of all the nickels and dimes stuffed into a large glass jug. The more money customers spend in the shop, the more opportunities they gain to guess the amount. When a curious boy named Appleseed arrives out of the blue exclaiming that he will count the money by sight, no one believes he can do it…

New York provides the setting for the remaining stories, and these city-based tales mostly feature lonely individuals or couples trapped in failing relationships. The situations are not straightforward, and Capote’s characters tend to be vulnerable, isolated or unhappy with the cards that life has dealt them. In Master Misery, one of my favourites from the collection, we meet Sylvia, a young woman who is clearly irritated to be living with her childhood friend Estelle and her husband:

It occurred to her then that she might walk home through the park: an act of defiance almost, for Henry and Estelle, always insistent upon their city wisdom, had said over and again, Sylvia, you have no idea how dangerous it is, walking in the park after dark; look what happened to Myrtle Calisher. This isn’t Easton, honey. That was the other thing they said. And said. God, she was sick of it. Still, and aside from a few other typists at SnugFare, an underwear company for which she worked, who else in New York did she know? Oh, it would be all right if only she did not have to live with them, if she could afford somewhere a small room of her own; but there in that chintz-cramped apartment she sometimes felt she would choke them both. (pgs 155-156, Penguin Classics)

I love that quote: Sylvia’s anger at her situation, Estelle’s patronising tone. It conveys so much about the characters and their position.

The Master Misery of the title is Mr. Revercomb, a man who buys dreams for money, stealing a tiny piece of an individual’s identity with every story. Sylvia starts selling her dreams, but as the story progresses she becomes increasingly unsettled, ultimately realising that she must reclaim what’s rightfully hers.

In Miriam, another disquieting story, a lonely woman in her sixties befriends a young girl, Miriam, on a trip to the cinema. But when Miriam arrives at the woman’s apartment expecting to move in, events take a more sinister turn.

Capote certainly knew how to structure a short story. The openings are strong and for the most part I found myself immediately pulled into the initial scene and the story itself. Here’s the opening of The Bargain in which Mrs. Chase is talking on the phone to her husband. A simple scene but effective nonetheless:

Several things about her husband irritated Mrs. Chase. For instance, his voice: he sounded always as though he were bidding in a poker game. To hear his unresponsive drawl was exasperating, especially now when, talking to him on the telephone, she herself was strident with excitement. “Of course I already have one, I know that. But you don’t understand, dear – it’s a bargain,” she said, stressing the last word, then pausing to let its magic develop. Simply silence happened. (pg.177)

Mrs. Chase is waiting to receive a visit from a woman named Alice Severn, a friend she hasn’t seen in over a year. This woman has fallen on hard times, and the ‘bargain’ in question is a mink coat she needs to sell. I won’t say any more about what happens when the two women meet, but I’ll share the final lines to illustrate how Capote ends his stories. They often finish with a shiver: a note of sadness, a melancholy tone:

Alice Severn did not thank her, and at the door she did not say goodbye. Instead, she took one of Mrs. Chase’s hands in her own and patted it, as though she were gently rewarding an animal, a dog. Closing the door, Mrs. Chase stared at her hand, brought it near her lips. The feel of the other hand was still upon it, and she stood there, waiting while it drained away: presently her hand was again quite cold. (pg 183)

Capote’s stories are very atmospheric. His prose is clean and yet he seems equally adept at capturing the tone of the Deep South and the feel of the city streets. Here’s a brief excerpt from one of the NYC-based stories showing the streets in summer:

He turned into a side street leading toward the East River; it was quite here, hushed like Sunday: a sailor-stroller munching an Eskimo Pie, energetic twins skipping rope, an old velvet lady with gardenia-white hair lifting aside lace curtains and peering listlessly into rain-dark space – a city landscape in July. (pg. 94)

Three or four of the stories towards the end of the collection seem to reflect aspects of Capote’s own childhood in Alabama. Born in New Orleans in 1924, Capote was ‘deserted by a too-young and sexually adventurous mother and a bounder of a father’ only to be raised by a collection of cousins and neighbours. (That quote comes from Reynolds Price’s introduction.) This experience appears to have left its mark on Capote as a sense of loneliness and difference, of not quite fitting in, inhabits these stories. Two of these – A Christmas Memory and Thanksgiving Visitor – are among my favourites from the collection, and both feature the relationship between a young boy, Buddy (possibly Capote) and his best friend and distant cousin, Miss Sook. Buddy’s cousin is ‘sixty-something,’ but as a result of a long illness in her youth, Miss Sook remains a child.

A Christmas Memory tells of preparations for Christmas. Miss Sook and Buddy bake fruitcakes for all those who have shown them kindness during the year; they craft homemade decorations for the tree and presents for each other from materials squirreled away during the year. In Thanksgiving Visitor, Miss Sook attempts to heal the rift between Buddy and a boy who bullies him at school. Both stories are evocative, beautifully told and poignant, A Christmas Memory especially so.

I really enjoyed Capote’s Complete Stories, and they made a welcome change between a run of deeper novels. Most of the stories were very good to excellent, although three or four in the collection drifted a little and didn’t quite manage to hold my attention. Still, that’s pretty good going for a complete set of shorts – I wouldn’t expect to click with each and every one.

The Complete Stories is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 3/20 in my #TBR20.

34 thoughts on “The Complete Stories by Truman Capote

  1. heavenali

    I still haven’t finished the whole of A Capote Reader I loved the stories though I didn’t have The Christmas memory in my edition and it’s one I want to read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s nice to have something to dip into every now and again and your Reader edition sounds perfect for that. You’d love A Christmas Memory, Ali. I think it’s my favourite story from the collection, beautifully poignant.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Years ago I read In Cold Blood, that is the only thing that I ever read from Capote.

    I like the sound of way that the stories end. I find a bit of melancholy fascinating.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really liked the way these stories ended on a melancholy note. There’s a lot of sadness and loneliness here, and I can’t help but think this must be a reflection of Capote’s childhood.

      I must read In Cold Blood. I watched the Capote film over Christmas, the one that focuses on his approach to writing that book. Fascinating and disturbing stuff.

      Reply
  3. Caroline

    I remember one of Heavenali’s posts. I’ve got the Capote Reader but have only read a few very short pieces so far. Your post puts me in the mood to pick it up again.
    There are no novellas in your collection, right? I’ particularly interested in The Grass harp and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Since I often rea the beginning s of stories long before reading them I remeber thing the same as you — he writes terrific beginnings.
    Great post.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I’m glad to hear my piece puts you in the mood to return to Capote. You’re right; this collection is just the short stories, no novellas. I’d like to reread Tiffany’s and wondered about getting the Reader edition, but I tend to prefer smaller, lighter books. I just find them more comfortable to hold!

      The beginnings are pretty memorable, aren’t they? He was good on endings too. They’re interesting from a technical perspective as he knew how to structure and pace a story.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        Same here. I have a coule of books I’d love to read but can’t hold them. This must sound weird for some people. The Capote Rpeader isn’t as bad as some others but it would be wonderful to have the individual novellas.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I know what you mean. It’s my upper back that’s the problem, and holding a heavy or chunky book just exacerbates it. Good to hear that the Capote Reader isn’t too bad on that front. I think I’ll hold out for individual editions of Tiffany’s and his other books; the Penguin Classics editions are lovely.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have to read In Cold Blood as another friend recommend it to me last year. Have you seen the Capote film, the one with Philip Seymour Hoffman? It looks at the research he did for that book and his meetings with the men convicted of the murders. If not, it’s definitely worth a look.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I agree. I don’t know how I managed to miss it at the cinema as Hoffman and Christine Keener are two of my favourite actors. Just caught up with the DVD over Christmas.

          Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review! I read In Cold Blood years ago and was very impressed. I also own Music for Chameleons and have read it but can remember precisely nothing about it – this is a good reason to blog!! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. In Cold Blood is on my list for sure and I’m glad to hear you rate it. The process of blogging/reviewing is definitely helping me to remember books much more effectively than before…my early reading years are a black hole!

      Reply
  5. realthog

    I must try to find time for this book — your descriptions are tantalizing! The only Capote I’ve read is In Cold Blood, and that was decades ago, probably not long after it came out. I did, however, watch all four of the In Cold Blood-related movies (the original, the TV miniseries, Capote and Infamous) a few months ago, and found each of them excellent in its own different way.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cheers, John. If you’re interested in Capote as a writer and an individual, then I’d say these stories are worth a few hours of your time. Three or four of the stories feel inspired by aspects of his childhood giving an insight into his early life.

      I must read In Cold Blood as so many people have mentioned it to me. As I think you know, I watched the Bennett Miller/Hoffman Capote film over the holidays, and Infamous will make an interesting companion piece I’m sure. I’ll take a look at your website for reviews of the adaptations of In Cold Blood, too. Thanks for dropping by.

      Reply
      1. Guy Savage

        I like short stories a lot as a break in between weightier novels. I’ve never been curious about Capote as a writer for some reason–although I am curious about him as a person. I was a bit put off, to be honest, about him when I read Mockingbird–a non fiction book about Harper Lee. She literally grew up next door to Capote. There was some controversy about whether or not she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird or if Capote wrote it (she was an unknown, he was a rockstar). But it’s clear it was Harper Lee’s book as she done so many revisions.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s one of the reasons why I like short stories too. I didn’t know very much about Capote till I read this collection. The introduction was quite helpful in shedding some light on his early life, how the experiences of his formative years may have coloured some of these stories.

          Then I rented the Capote film, the one with Hoffman in the lead role. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there was something very strange about the relationship he developed with one of the killers in the Kansas case (the basis for In Cold Blood). The film’s quite revealing in terms of his character: there was something off about the way he got close to one of the killers in particular, he got too involved and the integrity wasn’t there in the end…

          That’s interesting about Harper Lee. In fact, I hadn’t realised he was so close to her till I watched the Capote film and there she was accompanying him during his research on the Kansas case. It was around the time of Mockingbird’s publication although the film only touches on it briefly.

          Going back to Capote’s stories for a moment, I think you might like some of the city-based ones (if you were ever minded to try any): Master Misery and Miriam, for instance.

          Reply
  6. Scott W.

    Nice to see Truman Capote getting some renewed attention. I’ve read some of these stories, maybe most of them, but I’m particularly happy to be reminded of “Jug of Silver,” since I recall reading it at a relatively young age and wanting to have that power to count those coins by sight. “A Christmas Memory” has become almost iconic; in our household it rotates with “A Christmas Carol” and “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” as among those pieces that occasionally get read aloud in the wee hours of Christmas morning, even though my own Christmases in the South were nothing like that…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Scott. There’s something magical about the Jug of Silver story, and I’m glad my post reminded you of a few happy memories. I wonder how many local stores set up their own ‘money-jar’ novelties off the back of Capote’s tale? I recall my grandfather telling us about a similar competition back in the day as it was quite an attraction at the time. He didn’t have Appleseed’s vision of course…

      I loved A Christmas Memory – definitely the standout story from the collection, and I can understand why it has become so iconic. I should have included a quote from it as two or three passages caught my eye: Buddy and Miss Sook foraging for windfall pecans and the scenes where they make the cakes and decorate the tree. Ah well…

      The Dylan Thomas is another favourite, ideal for reading aloud.

      Reply
  7. Anokatony

    I’ve looked for an excuse to read Truman Capote, and the com plete stories may be it. ‘In Cold Bloomk which is non-fiction might also be worth reading.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Capote’s stories are good, Claire, and it’s nice to dip in and out of a collection like this.

      Yes, I’m getting through the #TBR20. I started back in December so I’m currently reading book #7 with #6 (Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family) on hold. I just need to catch up with the backlog of reviews from last year. Oh, and I’ve also read a Pascal Garnier review copy plus a library loan both of which I’m excluding from the twenty just to avoid cheating.

      Reply
  8. Bellezza

    I’ve only read the typical In Cold Blood by Capote, and have yet to read the wonderful collection of short stories you recommended, and I bought, in the Fall! Jacqui, there’s not enough time for me to read all I want!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I shall have to read In Cold Blood as it keeps coming up in the comments. The other short-story collection you bought on my recommendation: that’s Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, right? I hope you enjoy it. And no, there’s never enough time for all the books!

      Reply
  9. 1streading

    As you know by now, US literature is not my strong point so it won’t surprise you to learn I’ve not read any Capote. I wasn’t really aware of him as a short story writer. I love the sound of A Christmas Memory in particular – one to save for next Christmas perhaps!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I might join you in another American literature month at some stage! I knew he’d written quite a few short stories but I’d only ever read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and that was several years ago. A Christmas Memory is wonderful, and I can see it becoming a favourite reread…worth tracking down.

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s good to hear – thanks, Cathy. I loved A Christmas Memory and I’m sure I’ll be revisiting it next Christmas. It’s such a visual story too, easy to imagine the scenes in your mind’s eye.

      Reply

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