Truman Capote nearly gave me a panic attack on a plane. Granted, I’m not a fan of air travel to begin with, but his writing certainly didn’t help. I was travelling back to Pennsylvania from Florida at the end of spring break having just learned the full extent of the Covid-19 virus and the campus shutdown. All of this was weighing on me as I entered the plane. Faced with having to think about contagion in a cramped flying tube for four hours, I decided to take my mind off things by reading a book I bought for $2.80 in a dusty labyrinth of a bookshop in Fort Lauderdale.
The book was Music for Chameleons, a nearly pocket-sized paperback with the name, “Truman Capote” dwarfing the actual title. Like many students, I had been required to read Capote’s earlier novel, In Cold Blood in high school and I enjoyed it well enough so I figured it would make a good way to pass a flight.
It’s clear the book is rather unusual right from the start. The book is split into three parts. The first section, the eponymous “Music for Chameleons” is a series of short stories, some depicting events in Capote’s life and others completely fictional. They are all touching, witty stories that quickly plunge the reader into Capote’s style of writing. Some of the stories are rather intimate portrayals of Capote himself, either through his personal accounts or through the perspective of his fictional characters. The short story “Dazzle” touches on Capote’s feeling of body dysmorphia as a child, a controversial subject today, let alone 1980 when the book was published.
Yet, Capote was never one to hide who he was. He was openly gay and refused to hide his sexuality during his rise to fame in the conservative 1960s. He was more than just a literary trailblazer, encouraging oher celebrities to be open and accepting of their sexuality.
While the first section is interesting, the centerpiece of the book is the section section: Handcarved Coffins: A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime. This novella, told from the perspective of Capote himself, slowly unravels a bizarre series of murders involving rattlesnakes, poison, decapitation and small wooden coffins that serve as an ominous herald of death. Capote alternates between being deeply involved in the investigation and ignoring it all together in favor of drinking and travelling. Most of the narrative takes place in a series of dialogues Capote has with the lead investigator, witnesses and suspects.
However, as the novella goes on it becomes clear that this isn’t the same meditation on justice that In Cold Blood was. This is a story of frustration and fate. As the killer’s identity becomes clear, the case against him deteriorates, mirroring Capote’s personal downfall. This leads to a series of tragedies culminating in an enigmatic confrontation between Capote and the killer. The book reads like a well written thriller novel. It quickly pulls the reader into the mystery. Capote’s gift for description and personal insight makes the people he encounters feel as friendly to the reader as they are to Capote. So
when everything goes wrong it’s truly heart wrenching and devastating as a feeling of dread and hopelessness takes over the narrative. This is what gave me a deep feeling of helplessness and unease as I flew in a crowded plane in the middle of an epidemic.
Handcarved Coffins is one of the greatest nonfiction accounts written and is a prime example of how Capote influenced true crime novels and podcasts which are inescapable today.
The only problem: None of it happened.
After the book’s initial publication, the New York Times investigated the claims made throughout the novella and could find no evidence of the crimes, investigations or people that Capote referenced throughout his narrative. Despite this, Capote would claim his novel was nonfiction up until his death. Years before the
Years before the book was published Capote went on a series of late night talk shows to discuss a series of bizarre murders he was writing about. All of this was done to sell the authenticity of his narrative. But why would Capote, one of the most famous and popular American writers at the time, create a hoax?
Around the time of the book’s publication, Capote’s life was in shambles. He increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol in a self proclaimed, “spiral of debauchery and misery”. For years he had promised publishers that he would soon publish his magnum opus. A personal memoir/nonfiction novel titled, Answered Prayers. In the manuscript Capote tackled everything from his childhood to the juicy gossip from the New York socialite scene. After the first few chapters were published in a preview many of Capote’s socialite friends abandoned him after he betrayed their confidence. For the rest of his life Capote constantly rewrote his book, delaying the book up until his death.
So with his publishers growing impatient and his fame beginning to diminish Capote needed a win. He needed something that would bring him back to the glory days following the publication of In Cold Blood over twenty years before. But In Cold Blood had taken years of research and dedication, something which Capote had neither the time or patience to undertake again. So, Capote used his years of experience reporting on crime to create the perfect series of crimes for his novella. He took details from various crime reports and using a healthy dose of pure imagination he concocted his narrative. It was a success. Not only did he fool me, but the majority of his readers. The book was a rousing success becoming a New York Times Bestseller. It boosted Capote’s celebrity once again in the years leading to his death and the last book he ever published in his lifetime.
But what value does a fictional nonfiction story hold? Well, there is still some truth in the story. Music for Chameleons is about Capote himself more than anything else. It’s a personal allegory told through a variety of means and Handcarved Coffins is a part of that. Throughout the story Capote is confident in his own investigation skills, portraying himself as indispensable to the official investigators. However, when the investigation reaches its climax Capote finds himself distracted. He goes on a hedonistic binge despite knowing that he has responsibilities elsewhere. When he needs to get to work, he decides to procrastinate in the most flamboyant way possible. It’s a metaphor for his own creative process told through a true crime format. What better genre to discuss loathing and anxiety?
Despite part of it being fictionalized, Music for Chameleons is a wonderful book. I had forgotten that amazing feeling of being pulled into a wonderful story. For all his faults Capote is a wonderful writer and embodies many of the struggles that a writer can experience. This book has lost much of its popularity over the years but I would highly recommend it. Just don’t read it on a crowded plane.