Books: The executioners' throng

After Capote and Mailer, another US writer is turning murder into art. Graham Caveney acquits him

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.

Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital