Thursday, December 1, 2011

Truman Capote: A Christmas Memory

I first read this Christmas story by Truman Capote when I was in the 6th grade in Central Junior High in Wahpeton, North Dakota.  For some reason, while I was rereading it today, I kept smelling grape bubble gum.  After some thought I remembered why.  The classroom in which I first read it, one cold December in the 70's, had one of those big old radiators to which we students used to love to stick our gum and watch it dribble down the sides while filling the air with perfume.

Anyway, this was one of those first stories I read that made me want to become a writer.  It's incredibly rich, vivid, and haunting, with a conversational, captivatingly rhythmical voice that takes you into the quiet story of the seven-year-old Capote and his much older but beloved Cousin Sook preparing for Christmas.  No one can equal the mesmerizing voice of Capote, or his skill with gritty, cinematic details, and he showed that even in a book that couldn't be more different from this story--In Cold Blood.

This story is about love and innocence without the intrusion of the outside world to take away the magic of pure love and the true meaning of Christmas.  And after I first read it all those years ago, I went down to the Carnegie Public Library in Wahpeton to find everything I could by this fella who could tell a story so richly and movingly.  All I could find was a worn copy of Breakfast at Tiffany's, and I still remember the brow the elderly librarian lady arched at me as she stamped the book's back with the due date.  I read the whole book over that Christmas vacation, and while this one was nearly as much of a departure from "A Christmas Memory" as Cold Blood was--and I doubt I really understood what was going on at that age of 12--I loved the voice and the images Capote conveyed.  And deep in my heart, on an intuitive level, I think understood Holly Golightly's loneliness, her love for lost souls and animals, and her need to escape any and all tethers while at the same time needing so desperately to belong.

I didn't know until later that Truman Capote was that small, pale, ridiculous-looking man on all the talk shows during the 70's, slurring his words and wearing big womanish hats and smoking from a long, black cigarette holder.  I still can't quite reconcile that man to the one who wrote "A Christmas Memory" and "A Thanksgiving Visitor"--or even Breakfast at Tiffany's, for that matter--but I do remember feeling bad for him and wondering why, in my young naive way, Dick Cavette and Johnny Carson kept having such a brilliant but obviously  flawed man on their shows drunk and making a fool of himself.  I just hoped, in that same naive way, that at least a fraction of the people watching had read his work and knew who he really was.

Truman Capote, long dead now, has had the last laugh.  And he'll keep on having the last laugh, because his work has and will survive.  Hell, I reread "A Christmas Memory" today and found even more to love about it than when I first read it nearly forty years ago.  And just thinking about Dick and Perry in In Cold Blood makes me quicken my steps when walking up from my basement at night.

Troubled man, amazing writer.


  1. I thought his part in 1976's MURDER BY DEATH was hilarious.

    There is a scene where the Charlie Chan parody character, Wang, is asked what he thinks of the murderous events to date. Wang replies: "Is confusing."

    From off camera Truman Capote contemptuously yells in his little voice: "It! IT is confusing! Say your goddamn pronouns!"

    For whatever reason, that has always stuck with me as funny.

    I, too, never knew what to make of Truman Capote as a youth when on Carson or elsewhere. But then, on other events, such as the Dean Martin roasts, so many of the guests were crocked it just seemed the norm.

    Tom Roberts
    Black Dog Books

  2. I never saw MURDER BY DEATH! I'll have to watch for it.