Summer Crossing

book by Truman Capote

annotation by Kate Maruyama

It is unfair.

But let me start at the beginning.

Browsing in the library, I was glancing at the Truman Capote shelf when a title I’d never seen before popped out at me: Summer Crossing. This was impossible. I’ve read everything Truman Capote ever wrote, including the unfortunate ANSWERED PRAYERS, written when he was too far gone on drugs and booze to capture his old magic. But here was a novel that he had left on the curb for the trash when he moved apartments in New York in 1950. It was written in 1943 in four composition notebooks and abandoned when he took up Other Voices, Other Rooms, his critically acclaimed debut novel published in 1948 at the tender age of 22. A well-meaning neighbor had plucked it from the trash and it didn’t resurface until years later. His longtime lawyer, Alan Schwartz deliberated over the moral dilemma of publishing an author’s work that had been earmarked for disposal and in 2004, the book was published in its entirety. According to a disclaimer at the end, only punctuation and misspellings were changed.

I was hopeful that reading this book, like reading Carver before Lish got to him or Fitzgerald before Perkins, I would find the rough stuff of a nineteen-year-old writer with some promise; further evidence that shitty first drafts and meticulous editing were the path to solid writing. But after the first three chapters, I felt like Salieri lurking behind the banquette watching Mozart making fart jokes with his beloved, Constanze in Amadeus. I don’t yet have a career even close to Salieri’s, but it is obvious that at age nineteen, Capote had outwritten me.

Capote talked of his drafting process in an interview with the Paris Review, stating that he worked in his notebooks and revised as he typed them. While these four composition books were said to be filled with crossed out words and rewriting, this was rough draft material. There are some portions where he got over-flowery, there is some repetition and on rewriting, the overall story would probably have been ironed out a little, but the prose is way beyond rough-draft caliber. After a while, I got caught up in the story. No clumsiness emerged, no troublesome patches. Having given us the point of view of Grady, a New York debutante for the book thus far, on page 71, Capote switches seamlessly to the point of view of Clyde, the Jewish parking attendant from Brooklyn who had seen things during the war. In close third person he takes us into the head of this guy who had failed expectations at every turn in his young life: he was meant to be a baseball prodigy but it never went anywhere, he went in the service, but didn’t distinguish himself, he went to work for his Uncle Al in Acron, but lost his temper with his lascivious girl-child cousin and was sent home. Clyde’s point of view is much more real and rough than the debutante, but their lives clashing at high speeds is what makes the story crackle.

The tone of the book echoes James Baldwin’s Another Country and Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Yet this book came almost two decades before those two. His descriptions of New York are breathtaking, “It was wilting out on Lexington Avenue, and especially so since they’d just left an air-conditioned theater; with every step, heat’s stale breath yawned in their faces. Starless nightfall sky had closed down like a coffin lid, and the avenue, with its newsstands of disaster and flickering fly-buzz sounds of neon, seemed an elongated, stagnant corpse…Hot weather opens the skull of a city, exposing its white brain, and its heart of nerves, which sizzle like the wires inside a lightbulb. And there exudes a sour extra-human smell that makes the very stone seem flesh-alive, webbed and pulsing.”

Nineteen years old.

The overall story isn’t much in summarizing, a debutante falls in love with a man from the wrong side of the tracks. Left to her own devices for a summer in Manhattan, she has sex, goes to jazz clubs, gets married, gets stoned and gets pregnant. Our story ends as a car she is driving with her new husband careens onto a bridge, probably headed for a wreck.

But it’s the attention to details that makes Capote’s prose sing. Not only the physical details of environment (as above) but internal details of thought. Each character is wired differently from the next and we are privy to their thought processes which make each of them so singular. Clyde, in a sleepy attempt to get out of the apartment where he’d been crashing, encounters a girl startled by his half-dressed state, her face reminds him of a drowned woman he’d seen in a creek in Germany during the war, her hands still wrapped around the reins of her horse. Grady’s mind wanders constantly in a seventeen-year-old way, never where it is supposed to be, from when her mother is talking to her to when she’s with Clyde. The pattern of her thoughts create an air of dreamy danger as we know she will blunder into any trouble the city has to offer.

As writers, we are often so anxious to get the story told, the dialogue right, the descriptions exact that we forget to linger awhile longer in the details, to see what more can be pulled out of them. There is always something more going on in each paragraph of Capote’s work, in each layer of his characters. The subtleties of human gestures and intent do so much more than tell a story. And if his rough draft, written at age nineteen, looks so good, I know I need to work a little harder.

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3 thoughts on “Summer Crossing

  1. Hi Kate, what a splendid job you’ve done on Capote’s Summer Crossing–a book I’ve read and written about (for Amazon.com)–but you make me want to read it all over again. Capote writes about a New York long gone, a raw New York with layers and layers of promise and waste, it’s an atmosphere without peer in postwar US fiction.

    But don’t get down on yourself–Capote couldn’t have written so lucidly as you have, about any fictional work. Thanks for this essay.

    (But I loved Answered Prayers too! For what it’s worth) (In some ways the story of Summer Crossing’s discovery out of the junkheap in even more chilling than the story of how Capote’s sloth and lies put the kibosh on Answered Prayers.)

  2. Pingback: Breakfast at Tiffany’s | Annotation Nation

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