Breakfast at Tiffany’s

book by Truman Capote

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have been a Capote fan since my early twenties, when reading In Cold Blood inspired  me to read  his entire oeuvre from Other Voices Other Rooms straight through to the drug-addled Answered Prayers and, more recently, his rediscovered manuscript, the ostensible precursor to Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Summer CrossingCapote was a hard working  writer who cared a lot about sentences and craft and was a painstaking revisionist–something we all can remember as we gasp over good writing: it usually took a lot of drafts to get there. He had a way of maintaining his own sharp observational lens throughout an enormously long career, constantly re-evaluating his work and always attempting to become a better writer. His entire introduction to Music For Chameleons which was published after his most acclaimed book, In Cold Blood, is a disclaimer that he had been wrong all along, he had only just now, figured out how to write. His non-fiction character portraits in that book and in magazines became the model for the way to do it. I doubt any celebrity piece in Vanity Fair doesn’t owe a nod  to Capote’s ability with character observation: read the book’s “A Beautiful Child” or his piece on Elizabeth Taylor. He had a keen eye for the nuances of humanity and used them in his fiction and non-fiction until, sadly, drugs and alcohol clouded his ability.

I haven’t re-approached Breakfast at Tiffany’s for several years, not since re-examining In Cold Blood in graduate school or since reading Summer’s Crossing. But as the book’s fifty year anniversary is upon us, and, as I am struggling with a heroine in my novel-in-progress, I decided it was high time for a re-read.

I was surprised that descriptions of Manhattan, one of the few things that evidenced glimmers of brilliance in the troubled Summers Crossing (there was a reason the book was found in a box of trash left out on the curb), were spare in Tiffany’s. Instead of merely providing a tableau,  Capote brings up descriptions of New York to provide us with the heightened awareness a person feels when something extraordinary happens. We are so often told to describe our surroundings in fiction, we tend toward the standard long-shot here-we-are-and-here’s-what-it-looks-like introduction. But Capote opens his novel thus,

“I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment.”(1)  He goes on to describe the apartment itself.

It is not until, in the glow of getting his first story published, the narrator goes out on the town with Holly that we were given the scope of the island, “That Monday in October, 1943. A beautiful day with the buoyancy of a bird.” (45) and our narrator leads us on a grand montage from drinking Manhattans in a bar, down Fifth Avenue,  through a beautifully described Central Park finally landing in Woolworths.

Setting can create mood, foreboding and romance, but it is used so subtly here to give us a character’s sense of ebullience, that moment in life where, out of simple elation, we pay more attention to our surroundings.

Holly herself, made an icon by Audrey Hepburn’s captivating and breathless performance in the movie, is a great deal more complicated in the book. Lulamae Barnes was orphaned as a child and sexually molested in foster care; this is casually mentioned, “I’ve only had eleven lovers–not couning anything that happened before I was thirteen because, after all, that just doesn’t count. Eleven. Does that make me a whore?” (65) She is lured into marriage at fourteen in Texas to a widower with four children and manages to escape to New York to recreate herself as a fast-talking devil-may care socialite, Holly Golightly.

Capote has the eyes of his narrator to observe Holly’s goings on, but it is in her dialogue that we get to the heartbreaking poetry of a damaged person whose outrageous parties, most torrid love affairs or found fortunes won’t ever truly heal. In a toast to her long lost husband whom she sent back to Texas on a bus, she says, “Good luck: and believe me, dearest Doc—it’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.” (60)

When her brother Fred dies in the war, Holly has a vision that “the Fat Woman” has him, the Fat Woman being her version of Death. Holly loses a pregnancy with a Brazilian she was meant to marry, suffers a scandal, losing the promise of marriage along with the baby and our narrator tries to talk her out of fleeing to Brazil. She says, “And if you lived off my particular talents, Cookie, you’d understand the type of bankruptcy I’m describing. Uh, uh, I don’t just fancy a fade-out that finds me belly-bumping around Roseland with a pack of West Side Hillbillies. While the excellent Madame Trawler sashayes(sic) her twat in and out of Tiffany’s. I couldn’t take it. Give me the fat woman any day.” (80) Holly, despite her bravado, navigates life just this side of shattered.

The movie, needing to sell tickets, created a romance between our narrator and Holly, to round out a lovely ending. But in the book, this narrator’s love is not romantic, and describes something a great deal more particular and human : “For I was in love with her. Just as I’d once been in love with my mother’s elderly colored cook and a postman who let me follow him on his rounds and a whole family named McKendrick. That category of love generates jealousy, too.” (61) Capote so deftly describes a completely non-romantic infatuation that all of us have had flutter through our chests at least once.

Holly scrambles through life with more passion and lack of thinking than your average person and her nonstop clever dialogue and slapdash chic lifestyle makes her deeply appealing, but Capote maintains the difficulties our narrator has with Holly’s tremendous appeal and her myopic self-involvement. She is a complicated friend to have and more than once, he gives her up for lost.

Capote is not content with story clichés, nor character clichés.  This is no romantic love story, there is no simple solution. Holly is not your average tragedy waiting to happen. Holly is not the Heroine-Who-Cannot-Escape-Her-Past, nor is she the Live-Fast-Die-Young-Reckless femme fatale. She is not the girl, who, with a bit more polish, could have made a go of it in society, or in the movies. She is the corners and subtleties of fragile human existence and the simple scramble to get a toehold in this life.

Nor does she come to an untimely tragic end, or happy end. She is one of those larger personalities we encounter in life, one of those complicated, fragile friendships that never quite leave us. Our narrator eventually finds Cat, the feline Holly heartlessly threw out of a cab as she headed for the airport. Cat is well taken care of in a new home and the narrator tells us, “I wondered what his name was, for I was certain he had one now, certain he’d arrived somewhere he belonged. African hut or whatever, I hope Holly has, too.” (85) No further explanation, no solid answers. The novella ends.

As we struggle on with our individual characters, it’s important to remember that it is the original ones who last–the ones who don’t fulfill a role we’ve seen before, but go forward in whatever manner is consistent with their characters. Holly in all of her carefully wrought humanity and singular observations, in her brash decisions and cracking façade is an original. As I go back into a character with more depth, I need to remember that human stories don’t always have a predestined arc, that characters can grow, but stifle, too and that a simple human observation of an average day can overpower a character who follows a predictable more dramatic route.

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.

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of ChampionsBook by Kurt Vonnegut

Annotation by Neal Bonser

Wow. What to say about this one. First, and most uselessly, I enjoyed it quite a bit. But like I’ve said and I’m sure many before have said: tell me a story, make me want to turn the page. And in spite of all the meta-goings on in the novel, there was always that story and the building of suspense (in that curious way that you can build suspense by telling the reader what is going to happen) as Trout and Hoover made their way towards their unforeseen (by them, anyway) rendezvous.

Interestingly, this book made me think of In Cold Blood where two points of view exist simultaneously as they head toward a collision course. Funny that this novel and that one could, structurally at least, have so much in common. In both works, we know the meeting of the two points of view will have tragic results. In both works, the points of view alternate and build in suspense. Capote is virtually a character in his own work by virtue of it being a nonfiction novel and his cult of personality. Vonnegut is a character in his novel. Maybe somebody should write a critical paper comparing In Cold Blood and Breakfast of Champions. Maybe not.

About the drawings. I’m left wondering why he chose to put these in. They seemed clever at first, but became a bit wearing after a while. Kind of undermining some of the serious notes the novel struck upon at times. They were fun. And the other thing they allowed for was white space. I’m a believer in the value of white space and the break for the eye it gives the reader. I love short chapters and page breaks when I’m reading. Having the drawings added interest and white space and kind of made the thing brisk and easy to read. So, maybe a double-edged sword on the drawings.

Oh, and before I forget. Vonnegut’s funny. I love funny.

I usually try to steer my annotations toward my own writing and how reading this particular novel may or may not influence my writing or may have informed it in some way. With Vonnegut, I just don’t see it affecting my writing. I love the easy, conversational flow of the prose, its fluidity—something I aspire to. The whole thing about the reader turning the page—that certainly applies. I don’t know that any of this has affected me as a writer because they are things I already believed. I did note with interest when reading Steve Almond’s essays on Vonnegut the quote about writing over and over again about your family. This is certainly what I do. It seems I’m perpetually working out in my head issues of the life I’ve chosen (mainstream—two kids, two-car garage), my marriage, my disease. But it’s always subconsciously rendered. I’m still always just trying to tell the story and not suck. So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m glad Vonnegut was working through similar issues. And he certainly does not suck.

What I do know is I’ll be reading more Vonnegut in the future.