Columns > Published on January 2nd, 2013

Truman Capote's Buried Gun

[Truman Capote] is the most perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm.

-Norman Mailer

Let’s celebrate the extraordinary find published in the December issue of Vanity Fair: a never before seen Capote piece entitled, “Yachts and Things.” Capote intended this for final novel, his roman à clef, Answered Prayers. The six-page story was found buried in the archives of The New York Public Library, and now that it has been found, I can tell you that it is the most beautiful piece almost included in his almost-written novel.

Far from the gossipy, secret-telling tone that prevailed throughout the novel, “Yachts and Things” captures the exuberance of his early writing, when Capote was in awe of the world around him. His familiar colors, patterns, and themes emerge from the story’s sun and sea tone.  “Within an hour we were cutting across the sun-sparkled Aegean. As the sky began to deepen, and as a new moon, skinny as a slice of lemon rind, rose⎯we sighted the steep dark blue shape of, Spetsopoula, the privately owned island . . .” Capote has a special relationship with the color blue. He used various shades of it in his earlier novels and stories to describe dreams, memories, and the in between, as you can see in this quote from his first novel: “In the eyelid-blue betweeness, the wordy sounds of the whiskey drinkers spilled distantly.”  In “Yachts and Things”, the combination of the deepening sky and sun lit sea is positively cerulean. As Capote describes the island, there it is, that rhythm that Mailer was talking about: “ . . .it has been turned into a place as flowered and green as a Rousseau forest. Thousands of pheasants, bred for autumn shooting parties, rustle among the foliage, and the eyes of deer, hundreds of them, loom among the trees. Nightingales sang.”

“I’m constructing it in four parts, and actually, it’s like constructing a gun. There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel and, finally the bullet...”

Capote’s wind and water themes also appear in many of his previous novels. Water is often his touchstone, something he returns to in his narratives. Think about the Arkansas River from In Cold Blood. Capote looks to that river to describe Bobby’s memory of Nancy Clutter: “That was how Nancy had been: like young water⎯energetic, joyous.”  The wind often appears as another character in his stories, one that speaks only after readers have either failed to notice it or have forgotten its presence. When the wind makes itself known, readers first notice the impact and then they remember that it was there the whole time. In “Yachts and Things”, the wind even has a name: “August is a month when the Meltemi, a raucous wind filled with bits of sand dislodged from distant deserts, blows.”  Capote introduces this particular wind, then slides back to blue, before returning to the water: “But for the better part the days were calm and passed in an azure haze of crystal water . . .” In other words: Forget about that wind for now. Capote was considered a master of suggestion.

It isn’t until the final paragraph that the wind speaks. This is the last conversation between the narrator and his travel companion: “You’re such a hedonist. It’s intolerable.  A day later our porpoise reappeared; he played with us, guided us, kept us company until we again reached Aegean waters, where being a loyal Turkish porpoise, he stayed behind. I said to Mrs. Williams: He’s a hedonist too; and she said: What did you say? and I said: Nothing; and she said: Oh, I thought you said something; and I said: It must have been the wind.” This last line is particularly touching as I’m reminded of the last line from his short story, "Shut A Final Door." It is an anchor, and of all the sentences that Capote ever wrote, this one is still my favorite: “Think of nothing things, think of wind.”  

Keep in mind: Capote intended Answered Prayers as a roman à clef, a genre that his idol Marcel Proust was noted for in A Remembrance Of Things Past. Translated from French as “novel with a key,” The roman à clef is a novel about real life, written under a facade of fiction. The names of the characters that appear in the novel represent real people. The “key” lies in the relationship between the fiction and the non-fiction. In some novels of this genre, the author provides this key, but in others, the key is only implied through the use of epigraphs and other literary devices. Throughout Answered Prayers, Capote chose the latter model. Capote did offer something in an interview once, though it appears to be the most unlikely looking key. He offered a gun.

As he discussed his new novel with People magazine, Capote said, “I’m constructing it in four parts, and actually, it’s like constructing a gun. There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel and, finally the bullet . . .”

Unfortunately, Truman Capote died before he could complete the novel. What existed of the novel: Three chapters posthumously published by Random House. The unfinished novel is a mix of high society and low society and reflects Capote’s ambivalence toward the super rich, his flock of high society friends, and his growing sympathy for his low society friends. The narrator seems to be the thread that ties the chapters together, the gigolo, PB Jones. However, there were more than three chapters, even more than the original four parts. In the preface for his novel Music For Chameleons, he explains, “In 1972 I began work on this book by writing the last chapter first (it’s always good to know where one’s going). Then I wrote the first chapter “Unspoiled Monsters.” Then the fifth, “A Severe Insult to the Brain.” Then the seventh, “La Cote Basque.”

We may not have all the pieces of that final novel, but we have enough to explore Capote’s original metaphor. Let’s assemble the gun:

It’s also possible that “Yachts and Things” isn’t part of the gun at all, but another exquisite set of clues to the heart and mind of Truman Capote.

The Handle can be found in the very first chapter, “Unspoiled Monsters.” Capote holds it before his readers, in his proposition “That’s the question: is truth an illusion, or is illusion truth, or are they essentially the same?” This sets the entire tone for the novel. He twists the handle and examines each side, before offering this reflection: “As truth is nonexistent, it can never be anything but illusion⎯but illusion, the by-product of revealing artifice, can reach the summits nearer the unobtainable peak of Perfect Truth.”  

The Barrel of the gun, much like the roman à clef genre, exists in the in-between and can be found in all three chapters. As the heart of his gun, Capote shaped it with memory, regret, and sympathy. His memories and regrets in the first two chapters are about the death of his real life friend, Denham Fouts, a famous male prostitute. “A helpless man waiting in the dark by the side of an unknown road: that’s how Denny Fouts must have felt.” In the final chapter, “La Cote Basque”, we catch glimpses of the barrel as an additional aspect of setting and tone. Look down the barrel of his last line in that final chapter: “It was an atmosphere of luxurious exhaustion, like a ripened, shedding rose, while all that waited outside was the failing New York afternoon.”  

The Trigger, waiting to be pulled, is there in the second chapter, “Kate McCloud.” Within the first few pages, PB Jones expresses his sympathy for members of low society. A street preacher assaults a “shifting, shifted audience of sailors and hustlers, drug-pushers and beggars” by calling them “filth.” The narrator responds to this with, “Shut up. Don’t call them names. I’m no better than they are. And you are no better than I am.  We’re all the same person.” Later, we see Jones trapped in a dinner party, and insulted by shallow, wealthy celebrities. Capote begins to bear his teeth here by exposing the famous dinner guests as droning, boring drunks. 

The Bullet is what we have left. Fired in the final chapter of the novel, “La Cote Basque.” This is the explosive story that Vanity Fair analyzed in the article that accompanied the publication of “Yachts and Things”. This is the story where Capote tells secrets, where he spins true encounters of his high profile, celebrity friends under the thinnest of veils. Although this story cost him many friends, most notably Babe Paley and Slim Keith, he didn’t fully understand the damage that it caused them or the fiery aftermath that would further damage him.

Although it isn’t clear how literally Truman Capote followed the gun metaphor in his writing process, we can certainly use this metaphor as one way to understand the place “Yachts and Things” may have had in relation to the other stories in Answered Prayers. Perhaps it was the hammer, a spring and tension version of Capote’s world, pulled back by his own hand, and waiting to fall. It’s also possible that “Yachts and Things” isn’t part of the gun at all, but another exquisite set of clues to the heart and mind of Truman Capote. His true legacy, of course, is his art. His prose, blue and beyond the surface. Look for him there.

About the author

KARA KILGORE is at large and possibly on the lam. A graduate of Macon State College and former editor of the Fall Line Review--as well as a long-time writing student and graduate of several "Cult" writing intensives.

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