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.
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.