Thursday, January 21, 2016

Four Shotgun Blasts, Six Dead

"The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered. And Dewey could not forget their sufferings. Nonetheless, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger — with, rather, a measure of sympathy — for Perry Smith's life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage or another."

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1966)

I suppose the fact that I grew up in a small town has something to do with it, but I always related to how Truman Capote described the town of Holcomb, Kansas, in his book about the murders of the members of the Clutter family in 1959.

My hometown has always been considerably larger than Holcomb, and my hometown is still a small town today, even though it is much larger than it was when I was growing up there. The folks in Holcomb probably would regard my hometown as a city, but it will have to get much bigger than it is today before it can justify being called a city. Until that day comes — and it may never come — my hometown is a small town, and what was true of Holcomb in 1959 is true of any place that qualifies as a small town.

I guess that explains why I have always found the descriptions of the town to be the most compelling parts of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," which was published in book form 50 years ago this month after running in a serialized form in The New Yorker.

After all, Capote's observations of small–town America — and how such a small town reacts to an event as horrific as the murders of four family members in their own home in the dead of night — are rooted in his experience. He was born in New Orleans, but he spent his formative years in tiny Monroeville, Ala., where he became friends with Harper Lee, the eventual author of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Capote's assistant in his research for "In Cold Blood."

There was a time in my life when a senseless murder reverberated through my hometown. Having lived through that, I think I can imagine what it was like in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959.

"In Cold Blood" was truly a tragic tale, not just about the four lives that were taken in the middle of a November Kansas night but also about the two men who took them and the price they ultimately paid for it.

It was a powerful book, the book that defined Capote's life and career. My current copy of the book — and I have owned several over the years — is always on my desk because there are often times when I want to refer to it in one way or another or there are times when I simply want to confirm something that I know from having read the book so many times. Sometimes I just want to re–read certain passages.

(My current copy of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is always on my desk, too.)

I don't remember when I first read "In Cold Blood." College, probably. I read a lot of true crime books at that time — but I did read "Helter Skelter" when I was in high school so it is possible, but not probable, that I read "In Cold Blood" in high school.

Whenever I did read it for the first time, that is probably when I got my first copy of the book — because I have no memory of being assigned to read it in any sort of English class I ever took. Therefore, I must have chosen to read it, and I have seldom borrowed books from libraries. I usually buy them — paperbacks preferred, although they are no bargain these days.
"The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there.' ... The land is flat, the views are awesomely extensive: horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them."

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1966)

So while I can't be sure when I first read it, I'm quite sure that, when I did, I did so on my own — independently of anything I did for school.

At this point, though, that really isn't important, is it?

I thought Capote summed things up very succinctly when he wrote of the events that transpired on that night in 1959: "Four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives."

That's what matters.