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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THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY

THE FINCA VIGIA EDITION

What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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