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Book Review: Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story by Kim Powers

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There's something about the ghost story that comes alive in Southern literature. Maybe it's the fact that, scattered unevenly across the Dixie landscape, there are large, former plantation homes that carry the pain and anguish of slavery, wealth, and suicide. It may also be because the hills and cotton fields of the South hide some of America's worst moments in history, and the trees have the scars and bullet holes to prove it.

Yet, the ghost story has never come alive as richly as Southern history may suggest; although the Southern landscape harbors a truly scary past, modern fiction writers would rather focus on how the past dictates the present, and the "ghosts" represented are those moments in time where things were left slightly skewed.

In Kim Powers' latest novel Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story, the literary past comes to haunt the 20th-century's most prominent literary duo: Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Powers re-writes the moments leading up to Truman Capote's death in 1984 by bringing back the dead, and Truman is left haunted by the family murdered in Holcomb, Kansas in his famous "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood.

Capote in Kansas begins as Truman calls his lifelong friend and literary confidant Nelle Harper Lee. Because his life has become a mess of drugs and alcohol, he claims that Nancy Clutter, the woman murdered along with her family in In Cold Blood, has appeared as a ghost, but Nelle is not buying it — she has harbored bitterness toward Truman for years. Powers then reveals that the Clutter family ghosts are "coming for [Nelle] as well," our first indication these ghosts are more real than Truman's drugged-up phone conversations suggest.

Unfortunately, Powers doesn't set us up with much more than a weak storyline about ghosts that, unless you are familiar with In Cold Blood and Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, remain flat and uninteresting. He bases all of the events, feelings and opinions between Truman and Nelle on biography, but there's not much here that is fresh and original. Even if all you know about Truman Capote and Harper Lee is based on 2005's excellent film Capote, you know enough about this novel's central themes, since most of the book uses ideas presented in that movie and a little extra research.

Granted, Powers has bulked up his story with a lot of research on the Capote/Lee friendship. Throughout the story, Nelle reflects back on her past (particularly her friendship and support of Truman), and along the way, Nelle is visited by the ghosts of the Clutter family. These visits lead Nelle to question Truman's intentions; in the process, Truman sends Nelle creepy messages in cardboard boxes. Powers does a great job of getting to the heart of Nelle's insecurities and Truman's self-inflated ego, but he never takes us beyond this.

The problem with Capote in Kansas is, quite frankly, the plot. The story revolves around the resurrection of ghosts from the past, who visit both Nelle and Truman late at night. But that's about it. I'd write more about their encounters with the ghosts, but there's really nothing left to say about them. For Nelle, the ghosts bring back her bitterness towards Truman's sabotage of her novel, and Powers uses old rumors about the authorship of Nelle's To Kill a Mockingbird to show why she is bitter. Truman, on the other hand, believes the ghosts are there to seek revenge for In Cold Blood, but despite this, Truman continues his downward spiral of paranoia.

The question remains: why write a ghost story in the first place if the ghost story is such a minor aspect of the plot? If Powers had created a story that relied less on established biography and more on the fictional world he's trying to create, the ghost story could have worked. Instead, Capote in Kansas reads more like a poor attempt at mimicking Capote's "non-fiction novel" style than a convincing Southern ghost story.

If you are a fan of Lee or Capote's fiction, Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story may be worth reading, but don't expect much original information. For everyone else, this ghost story is not that exciting. It may use some Southern gothic traditions to re-visit this infamous friendship, but it doesn't have the plot or imagery to hold you through to the end.

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