10 AUGUST 1985, Page 23

Cultural conscience of the rich

Duncan Fallowell


Hutchinson, L10.95

In this embattled world the homosexual has increasingly taken on the full-time job of being guardian of our culture, while others are engaged on other full-time jobs such as raising families or trying to blow up the enemy. There are many ways of being a guardian and Truman Capote's way was 1) on duty, as a writer of considerable fasti- diousness, 2) off duty, on television, at dinner parties, openings, receptions, in books like this, as a venomous cultural conscience. He was a snob in that he respected only excellence; he wasn't a snob in that he could recognise excellence in unexpected places; and it was not mediocrity he despised so much as mediocrity posing as excellence — he was quick to detect it and merciless in expo- sure. Clearly this skill would function to most noticeable effect among the rich and famous, so he sought them out, and later a sado-masochistic relationship developed and they sought him out too. Also, he was a man who had to be in the know, had to be in on everything — it was his family substitute, an aspect of his insecurity.

In Capote's conversation the debunking nature of homosexual comedy ascends to a screach of detached, invulnerable mock- ery. The voice alone was almost enough no decent person would talk in that horrid, high nasal way. A nasty little number indeed, who climbed to the top of the tree, then — the nerve — started giving the game away. And worse — went into details the way other people went into hiding. The glory of Capote is his fearlessness. He comes out with it. Right out. The Ken- nedys for example, he grew to hate them. The President 'had a real bad case of satyriasis.'

`And how did Jackie deal with that?' asks Lawrence Grobel innocently.

. . He didn't do it right in front of her face. . . That's why he bought that house in Virginia. She would be sitting in the house in Virginia and the wife of a foreign industrialist, with whom he was having this great affair, would fly in to give him a blow-job in Washington.'

.Occasionally Capote hits the horrific sublime. 'Have you ever read someone like Jacqueline Susann or any of the best- selling writers like Irving Wallace or Harold Robbins?' asks nice Mr Grobel.

'I caused Jacqueline Susann's death!', says Capote. 'She was lying in bed dying of cancer. I didn't know. I i.vs on television and somebody asked me what did I think of Jacqueline Susann. And I said, "She looks like a truck driver in drag." And she was watching the show. She fell out of the bed. (Laughs.) Her husband picked her up. She was coughing up blood and never recovered. She sued me for a million dollars. (Laughs.) She was told she had better drop that lawsuit because all they had to do is bring ten truck drivers into court .

He's ruthless with fellow writers. On Auden: 'He had a terrific dull rudeness about him. And he had this dreadful boyfriend.'

On James Michener who wrote the foreword to this book: 'Why on earth would I be interested in reading a book called Chesapeake?'

On Joyce Carol Oates: 'I've seen her,' says Capote, 'and to see her is to loathe her. To read her is to absolutely vomit.'

Somewhat bewildered, Mr Grobel asks, `Has she ever, said or written anything about you to deserve such vituperation?

`Yes,' says Capote, 'she's written me a fan letter. But that's the kind of a hoax she is. I bet there's not a writer in America that's ever had their name in print that she hasn't written a fan letter to.'

At last someone's said it on Joyce Carol Oates. There are many, many moments in this book when one says to oneself: thank God, at last someone's said it.

In age and status Capote formed a natural triumvirate with Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. It has been quite a spectacle over the years watching these three trying to out-tongue each other childish, entertaining. Finally Capote wins by doing what he usually does — suddenly and without warning dropping to the bot- tom line.

See, Gore has literally never written a masterpiece. Now, even J.D. Salinger has written a masterpiece of a kind. Flannery O'Connor wrote a masterpiece or two. Hemingway did. Faulkner did. Scott Fitz- gerald did. Norman never has. We could go on and on, but he has not done the one essential thing: he has not written an un- forgettable book or a book that was the turning point in either his or anybody else's life.

Exactly. And Capote can do this because he knows where the bottom line is. You have to if you're going to produce a masterpiece because a masterpiece is any- thing built on the bottom line. Capote wrote one or two himself. Nobody's quite sure what they are except that one of them is In Cold Blood, his non-fiction novel about two multiple murderers in Kansas. He says in that hieratic tone which even the least pompous American writers cannot avoid when talking of their noble calling (and which nearly always turns into a neurosis with them) that producing In Cold Blood led to the most emotional experi- ences of his creative life. 'I came to understand that death is the central factor of life. And the simple comprehension of this fact alters your entire perspective. .

In fact he came to be the greatest living expert on the multiple murderer. He talked to over 400 of them. 'Eighty per cent of multiple murderers have tattoos. Interview after interview after interview, the person always turned out to be tat- tooed, either a little bit or a lot. . . There's something really the matter with most people who wear tattoos.'

Mr Grobel says, 'Did you know that a Jew with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery?'

Capote, very' surprised by this, replies, `That's fascinating. . . I wish I had known that a long time ago.'

There are other surprises to be had: that Capote had an intense admiration for the writing of E.M. Forster; that Capote lived in Russia for a while — there should have been more on Russia here, and more about Capote's death, which is referred to only obliquely. His commitment to writing slackened and the recourse to drink, drugs and gossip became overwhelming. A com- bination of the first two killed him last year. The third produced the interviews which make up Lawrence Grobel's marvel- lous book. Vivacious, intelligent, beastly, informative, with a volatile but recognis- able integrity, there's hardly a sentence which bores, and it should have been twice as long.