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Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story

Kim Powers

(Carroll & Graff)

Truman, I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore

“What is fame?  The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.”
—Lord Byron


In the South, it’s considered very bad manners to speak ill of the dead or to cast aspersions on the living. In Capote in Kansas, Kim Powers does both. Riding on the coattails of the popular 2005 film Capote, the author capitalizes on the In Cold Blood sensationalism to create a bizarre and distasteful fictionalization of the last days of Truman Capote and his lifelong friendship with Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird fame.


Capote and Lee grew up together in Monroeville, a small Alabama town. Lee went on to write her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, which drew on her and Capote’s childhood experiences. It was the only book she ever wrote. She retired from the limelight and returned to leading a quiet life in her hometown, where she still resides today at the age of 81. 


Capote went on to write numerous books that won awards (but not a Pulitzer) and lead a highly publicized life as one of Manhattan’s more outrageous glitterati. He threw parties that turned into media events, was a regular at Studio 54 as well as gay bathhouses, made friends—and subsequently, enemies—out of society’s crème de la crème, appeared drunk and incoherent on late night talk shows and gained a reputation for his eccentricities, excesses and acerbic tongue. In Cold Blood, his “nonfiction novel” about the gruesome murders of the Clutter family in Kansas that he researched with Lee’s help, was published in 1965. It was his last completed book and he died in 1984 of acute alcoholism and multiple drug intoxication.


Capote in Kansas’s thin plot centers on two literary myths, neither of particularly earth-shaking importance to anyone: first, that Capote ghostwrote one-hit-wonder Lee’s iconic novel and second, that Capote became so obsessed with the Kansas murders and its two psychopathic perpetrators that he was unable to write anything of significance after In Cold Blood.


Powers portrays a demented Truman Capote anonymously sending nasty, necrophilic, handmade gifts to his old friend Lee when not wallowing in his own filth on his deathbed or wandering half-naked in the desert around his Palm Springs home. At night, the ghosts of the Clutter family pay malevolent visitations to him, driving him deeper into the dark recesses of madness. The many pages of unfinished last novel consist of only one word written over and over again: heliotrope 


Harper Lee fares even worse in Powers’ hands. She’s a bona fide nut case herself, holed up in her old childhood home, afraid of everyone and everything, and sleeping with a loaded gun because she also experiences nightly visits from the Clutter specters. Instead of working on a new book, she spends her days writing long, rambling letters to her dead brother and hanging around the graveyard where her family is buried. She wishes she’d been born a man and obsesses over the lost, hand-penned manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird that would prove her to be its true author.


The book’s premises verge on ridiculous. Anyone who has read the works of the two writers in question knows that their literary styles are distinctive and different. It’s obvious that the reason why Capote never produced another finished work had to do with spirits found in a bottle, not hovering over his bed at night. Moreover, Powers is not a sufficiently skillful literary illusionist to do the impossible and make this story either credible or compelling. The writing is erratic and repetitive, and the occasional flashes of brilliance aren’t enough to carry their reader through the novel’s seemingly endless 251 pages of fabricated, over-the-top fluh.   
 
Truman in Kansas offends aesthetic sensibilities by going well beyond the bounds of literary license. Capote’s sybaritic, self-indulgent, destructive and squandered life is well documented already. There’s no need to embellish upon it in a work of fiction. As for the still-living Lee, there is no evidence that justifies characterizing her as a neurotic, delusional, sexually maladapted recluse. She stepped out of the public eye because she wanted to live like a normal person, not a celebrity. Asked by an interviewer why she never wrote another book, she replied, “When you have a hit like that, you can’t go anywhere but down.”  Sounds like a sensible and eminently sane woman to me.


In light of Truman’s taste for notoriety, he’s probably not rolling over in his grave about the grotesque things attributed to him in this misbegotten book. But if I were Harper Lee, I’d be mad. Damned mad. And if I were Kim Powers, I’d watch out. Some night in the future, a certain disgruntled spirit from Monroeville just might pay an unsettling little visit to him.

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