Books: A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 28 February 1998
Berendt's bestseller helped revive this dubious brand of dramatised reportage. A hybrid and a bastard the form remains, although - like many such - it can exert a seductive pull. The genre in its modern guise began in the New Yorker in 1965, with the work that still defines it best: In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's throat-gripping account of four senseless murders on an isolated Kansas farm, and of the pair of wild drifters who were hanged for them.
A plump country caterpillar from Alabama who mutated into Manhattan's flashiest social butterfly, Capote never came close to equalling the book through his drink-and-drug-addled later years. That much, at least, is plain from the 500 grinding pages of George Plimpton's new 'oral biography', Truman Capote (Picador, pounds 20). If you fancy a gargantuan, high-society reprise of Lou Reed's 'New York Telephone Conversation' (with 30 pages lavished on a single party), Plimpton's vast patchwork of interviews will fit the bill. If not, just nip into a bookshop, find the index, and check the contributions from the grumpily respectful Norman Mailer and the archly hostile Gore Vidal. ('Capote said to me, "Thank heavens, Gore, we're not intellectuals". I said, "Speak for your fucking self!"').
For a writer who always chose to mingle gossip, fact and myth, a bald set of transcripts must count as the worst conceivable portrait. So, in the case of In Cold Blood, clashing statements from law officers about its veracity lie side by side on the page. Capote's reputation rests on us knowing exactly what sort of alchemy he worked with the truth. Yet, without any critical analysis, the many contradictions dangle in mid-air. One witness even claims that Capote wrote 'a good part' of To Kill a Mockingbird for his childhood friend and co-researcher in Kansas, Nelle Harper Lee. Well, did he or didn't he? It matters to that novel's horde off fans. This lazy method can't enlighten us.
Indeed, you often wonder how strong a guiding hand Plimpton imposed on the team of minions who did the tape-recording. This bloated tome alludes to an ex-Observer editor it calls 'David Avsder'. Now, Plimpton probably knows David Astor, and the great literary socialite can certainly spell his dynasty. If a book carries your name on its cover, surely good manners dictate you should at least read it first?
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