Books: The executioners' throng

After Capote and Mailer, another US writer is turning murder into art. Graham Caveney acquits him
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The Independent Culture
Indiana Gothic

by Pope Brock

Review, pounds 9.99, 372pp

Writing in the March 1961 edition of Commentary, Philip Roth proclaimed that "The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist."

In a world now saturated with the stories of O J Simpson, Louise Woodward and the Menendez brothers, Roth's prophecy seems all the more prescient. Pope Brock's debut belongs in that long line of American works that have repositioned the facts of their society by constructing a sort of fiction out of them. And if Brock's book has an ancestor, it is surely Truman Capote, who - again in 1961 - began researching a book about the brutal murder of a family in a small town in Kansas.

The Clutter family of Holcomb had been slaughtered without motive or mercy. Their executioners, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, were low-life drifters, as quick to blame the other as to pull the trigger. On 14 April 1965, they were both hanged from "The Corner" in Kansas State Penitentiary.

Capote's In Cold Blood appeared in 1966 to a mixture of commercial success and critical discomfort. Yet it was not the bloody futility of the crime that rocked the literary establishment, but rather the manner of its telling. Capote had abandoned the conventions of reportage, and replaced them with his own poetic flourish. He did not give us victims and killers, theories and facts, but a narrative that unfolded with a Zolaesque naturalism, populated by characters to whom he attributed inner lives of which they were tragically (blissfu1ly?) unaware. This was journalism mutated into fiction, a real-life bloodbath that had become the property of the author's rarefied imagination.

The book raised enormous moral dilemmas. To whom do tragedies belong? The innocent dead or their self-appointed poetic witness? At what point does empathy become exploitation? What are the consequences of one man's murder becoming another man's metaphor? Kenneth Tynan went so far as to accuse Capote of hastening the criminals' death.

Whatever its ethics, In Cold Blood changed the landscape of American letters. Capote christened it his "non-fiction novel", and in so doing came up with an ingenious response to Roth's charge that American reality was in danger of leaving its novelists redundant. Invention was no longer necessary; simply scour the headlines instead. America was enacting its own deranged plots. The function of the novelist was to inhabit them.

It was, of course, a two-way street. If the novelist could go waltzing into the newsroom, then surely the reporter could don the garb of fiction. Tom Wolfe brought the voice of Henry James to the pages of Esquire, writing up an interview with Phil Spector through the mind of his subject. Hunter S Thompson made his persona the lead story, telling the newsdesk to hold the front page until he had created the mayhem to fill it. Terry Southern, George Plimpton and Joan Didion all followed suit, so that by 1975 E L Doctorow would announce that "There is no more fiction or non-fiction - only narrative."

Almost inevitably, it fell to the maverick Norman Mailer to exploit fully the potential of this fugitive new style. He had already mined the seam of New Journalism in his account of the Vietnam protests, The Armies of the Night. But it was with The Executioner's Song that he realised the true scope of the non-fiction novel. This epic 1,000-page account of Gary Gilmore, and his insistence on being executed, wrote the journalist out of the proceedings and handed them over to the landscapes of Utah, the Gothic nature of Mormonism, and the interplay between criminality and celebrity.

Pope Brock's contribution to this genre may lack Mailer's contemporaneity, but shares his mixture of religious solemnity and murderous impulse. We are in the mid-West at the turn of the century: a place where pious Protestants rub shoulders with the girls of the local cat-house, a world torn between the Jeffersonian farmer and the get-rich-quick conman.

Out of his sprawling family narrative emerge two sisters: one, who marries a man of frustrated ambitions, the other, a man who moves from harvester to high office. These figures are Brock's own great-grandparents. He characterises them with both the tender eye of familiarity and a serendipitous sense of historical otherness.

An affair begins between husband and sister-in-law, one that they miraculously keep secret for the best part of four years. They even have a child who - and this is where faction really does have a frisson unto itself - they name after its biological father, who is assumed to be its uncle.

Adultery and families are both literary minefields, and Brock manages to tread between the two in a way that is menacingly understated. His voice has all the casual surrealism of a front-porch tale-teller, no longer surprised that folks are much weirder than they are meant to be. This plot may have come out of Hawthorne, but its style belongs to Willa Cather.

Eventually, the cuckold's suspicions are confirmed, and he becomes a man lost in the conflicts between Christian charity, familial duty and the blood-lust of shotgun justice. It is through his predicament that Brock is able to explore the tensions that haunt the book's period and place.

Indiana is a state that bred both the suffragettes and the Ku Klux Klan, temperance and bootlegging, the love-thy-neighbourliness of the New Testament and the vengeful wrath of the Old. Its landscape also hovers between the benign and the apocalyptic - the promise of a rural idyll on one hand, the threat of unforgiving drought on the other. Brock's achievement is to take these cultural fault lines and enact them within the privacy of a raw and tender domestic drama.

It ends in murder. It has to. Yet the trial that ensues is a superb examination of how 19th-century America still laboured beneath its theocratic heritage, of how morality and legality were forced to fight to take up residence in a body to which both belonged. As pure courtroom drama, is as good as it gets; as historical reconstruction, there has been none better.

As the American justice system becomes increasingly unreal, it is ironically within the non-fiction crime novel that "the truth" emerges at its most urgent. In his haunting use of the facts which, he writes, "formed a line of buoys in a sea of my imagination," Brock joins the ranks of those writers who remind us that it is narrative that makes sense of empirical reality. We must turn to stories in order for history to be accurate.