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MUSIC FOR CHAMELEONS by Truman Capote

MUSIC FOR CHAMELEONS

By Truman Capote

Pub Date: Aug. 11th, 1980
ISBN: 0679745661
Publisher: Random House

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.