Capote in Kansas is newly available in paperback, and I jumped at the chance to read it because it's about Truman Capote, one of my favorite writers, and his friendship with Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
In the novel, Kim Powers starts with some basic facts and incidents in the lives of the two great writers and constructs a fictional, fantastical tale of what might have transpired between them during Capote's last days. Unfortunately, what might have been a lovely and haunting story collapses under the double-team pressure of mawkishness and bad writing.
It's well known that the two writers spent summers together as children, and that in her masterwork To Kill a Mockingbird Lee based the character Dill Harris on Capote. What may be a little less well known is that Lee accompanied Truman when he traveled to Kansas to research the horrendous Clutter murders for his groundbreaking true-crime book, In Cold Blood. Combining facts, speculation, and his own inventions, Powers weaves a tale of ghostly visitations, strange obsessions, long-nursed grudges, long distance communication, and the secret dreams and nightmares of great but frustrated writers.
It's rich material to work with, but lazy writing and sloppy thinking sabotage Powers' efforts. What is one to make of a paragraph like this, which begins with a pleasing poetic image but then explodes into an incomprehensible mess:
[The p]hotos [were] so gruesome she had tried to turn their reality into vague, abstract shapes: turn pools of blood into fluid circles on a field of black and white, turn bodies and faces into geometry, not people whose names she now knew, who had been spared no dignity in death – and no further dignity as she and Truman bore witness to the last, and most intimate, moment of their lives.
Powers also has an annoying habit of trying to draw cheap dramatic effect from piling on one-sentence paragraphs:
The coroner had to admit he had never been shot to death, so couldn't honestly describe how it felt.
And that's what Truman wanted: honesty.
That thing in death, their deaths, that he had never had in his life.
It this were a story about fictional characters, I might have been able to overlook some of its stylistic failings; one can forgive flawed writing when it's employed in the service of a ripping yarn. But Powers is writing about two monumental figures of 20th century American prose, and while we don't demand that a writer giving us a version of such people should be able to match their abilities, we should at least be reminded of why we love their work – and reminded by evocation, not sad comparison.