MUSIC FOR CHAMELEONS

A distressingly thin and uneven new collection from a man who's clearly been having a terrible time at the typewriter; in a painful introduction, Capote reviews his whole career and tells how he recently realized the limitations of his previous work and arrived at a new style—first-person narration, severe and minimal, heavy on transcript-like presentation of conversations. Sadly, this new manner hardly has the intended effect—and it certainly can't disguise the lack of substance or shape in most of the anecdotal, apparently non-fictional, material here: the story of how Pearl Bailey helped Capote escape onto a plane out of California (to avoid a contempt-of-court charge); a chance meeting with an old pal—an earthy lady barkeep—in New Orleans; an interview (surprisingly tedious) with a convicted, Manson-connected murderer; a 1955 conversation with Marilyn Monroe that slides from sheer tacky gossip to appalling sentimentality ("Marilyn, Marilyn, why did everything have to turn out the way it did? Why does life have to be so fucking rotten?"); a couple of believe-it-or-not dinner-table tales; an embarrassing self-interview; and childhood memories of a few people who came to dinner. Much better, more genuinely felt, is another childhood fragment ("Dazzle"), in which little Truman (who wants to be a girl and/or a tapdancer) steals his grandmother's jewel to give to a wish-granting local sorceress. The title piece, too, at least sustains a mood. And two pieces begin well but fall apart, as the limitations of Capote's lightweight "non-fiction fiction" (neither the emotional texture of fiction nor the trustworthy grab of journalism) become glaring: "A Day's Work," with Capote following his pot-smoking, boss-sassing Hispanic cleaning woman on her appointed rounds (the piece that got TC accused of anti-Semitism); and "Hello Stranger," in which an old acquaintance—who may or may not be a child molester—tells TC his troubles over lunch at The Four Seasons. (Only one story doesn't feature fey, often fatuous, TC front and center: "Mojave"—a study of love/hate couples and triangles that almost works. . . until Capote insists on spelling out all the parallels.) Throughout, the writing is flat, often clichÉd or cutesy, with only a very few flashes of real style ("She sounds the way bananas taste"). And the mannered, distracting transcript-format, with its aura of pseudo-authenticity, adds to the shiftiness inherent in Capote's gossip-as-literature approach. But the longest piece here, "Handcarved Coffins," rises above all these defects: it's such a ghoulishly outlandish (supposedly true) story—about a series of sadistic petty-revenge murders in a small Western town, committed through the years by an obvious but un-arrestable suspect—that it doesn't matter how it's told at all. And this gruesome chiller (featuring TC as sidekick to the state detective on the case) will guarantee a sizeable audience, as will perhaps the Monroe sex-talk. Overall, however, it's a depressing gathering—and, if Capote genuinely believes that "Handcarved Coffins" is better written than In Cold Blood, the prospects are hardly very promising for his long-awaited, promised-soon novel, Answered Prayers.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 1980

ISBN: 0679745661

Page Count: -

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1980

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS

Told through the points of view of the four Garcia sisters- Carla, Sandi, Yolanda and Sofia-this perceptive first novel by poet Alvarez tells of a wealthy family exiled from the Dominican Republic after a failed coup, and how the daughters come of age, weathering the cultural and class transitions from privileged Dominicans to New York Hispanic immigrants. Brought up under strict social mores, the move to the States provides the girls a welcome escape from the pampered, overbearingly protective society in which they were raised, although subjecting them to other types of discrimination. Each rises to the challenge in her own way, as do their parents, Mami (Laura) and Papi (Carlos). The novel unfolds back through time, a complete picture accruing gradually as a series of stories recounts various incidents, beginning with ``Antojos'' (roughly translated ``cravings''), about Yolanda's return to the island after an absence of five years. Against the advice of her relatives, who fear for the safety of a young woman traveling the countryside alone, Yolanda heads out in a borrowed car in pursuit of some guavas and returns with a renewed understanding of stringent class differences. ``The Kiss,'' one of Sofia's stories, tells how she, married against her father's wishes, tries to keep family ties open by visiting yearly on her father's birthday with her young son. And in ``Trespass,'' Carla finds herself the victim of ignorance and prejudice a year after the Garcias have arrived in America, culminating with a pervert trying to lure her into his car. In perhaps one of the most deft and magical stories, ``Still Lives,'' young Sandi has an extraordinary first art lesson and becomes the inspiration for a statue of the Virgin: ``Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen.'' The tradition and safety of the Old World are just part of the tradeoff that comes with the freedom and choice in the New. Alvarez manages to bring to attention many of the issues-serious and light-that immigrant families face, portraying them with sensitivity and, at times, an enjoyable, mischievous sense.

Pub Date: May 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-945575-57-2

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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