"Summer Crossing" by Truman Capote

New Yorker fiction -- October 24, 2005 issue

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For once, I'm sure this is a novel excerpt and not a short story, and for once, I couldn't care less. The writing here is striking, scrumptious, seductive -- all the more incredibly so when you think that he wrote this in 1943, at nineteen years old. The piece is proof that his talent was solid early on, and if the whole novel is this good, it is likely a good novel, Ms. Kakutani's review notwithstanding. She -- or Holly -- calls it "a smidge contrived" among other things. As if fiction by definition isn't. If Breakfast was his Gatsby, Crossing may be his This Side of Paradise -- not as brilliant, certainly, but enjoyable and admirable in its own right. The piece is worth reading for the sentence structure alone, or the mood alone, or the characterization alone.

The 17-column snippet here tells a simple story of an eighteen year-old girl named Grady's two love affairs, beginning with one in the present (with an inattentive parking lot attendant), flashing back to one from a previous summer (with a husband whose wife is pregnant), and returning to the present with the former events still fresh in mind. Grady is a darned advanced and independent young girl for the early Forties, and her tragic, almost masochistic taste in men forms the basis of her story. Yes, like Holly Golightly. So what?

The atmosphere of mid-century New York -- often combining seamlessly with Grady's interior monologue -- is as vivid and broad-stroked as a Hopper painting:
Since she had turned seventeen, however, she had liked only to walk around or stand on street corners with crowds moving about her. She would stay all afternoon and sometimes until it was dark. But it was never dark there: the lights that had been running all day grew yellow at dusk, white at night, and the faces, those dream-trapped faces, revealed the most to her then. Anonymity was part of the pleasure, but while she was no longer Grady McNeil, she did not know who it was that replaced her, and the tallest fires of her excitement burned with a fuel she could not name.
That last line could probably only be seriously written by such a young writer, but such occasional, mild purpleness for whatever reason just makes the piece more charming for me.

Grady's perceptions of people are both precise and dreamlike -- here she is on the topic of her ex-lover's pregnant wife:
She was a trifle of a person, like a seashell that might be picked up and, because of its pink frilled perfection, kept to admire but never put among a collector's serious treasures; unimportance was both her charm and her protection, for it was impossible to feel, as Grady certainly didn't, threatened by or jealous of her.
Using long sentences like that, Capote drums up a fairly funky rhythm, a slightly odd sytax, that sustains an unusual loping sound in the writing. Try this one, about her new interest:
Clyde Manzer's voice, grouchy with sleep but always fairly hoarse and furry, had some singular quality: it was easy to get an impression of whatever he said, for there was a mumbling power, subdued as a throttle left running, that dragged the slow fuse of maleness through every syllable; nevertheless, he stumbled over words, his pauses occasionally separating sentences so much that all sense evaporated.
Then a dash of dialogue, and then Clyde is rendered even more vividly with another, single, virtuoso sentence:
The four-lettered scholarship that carries a diploma in know-how -- how to run, where to hide, how to ride the subway and see a movie and use a payphone, all without paying, the knowledge that comes with a city childhood of block warfare and desperate afternoons when only the cruel and the clever, the swift, the brave survive -- was the training that gave his eyes their intensity.
Grady is pulled, anxiously but not reluctantly, into this man's control. She is willing to suffer through and forgive humiliation, indifference, lewdness -- pretty much anything -- in order to just be with him. She's young. It's simple. We've all been there, and we've all written about it, but the young Capote is writing in a fever dream here, the momentum carrying him into subtle, lyrical areas most writers either get bogged down in or skate over. No wonder Normal Mailer called him the most perfect writer of his generation.

Toward the end we start to get fairly cliche and simplistic metaphors as the story reaches a kind of New York afternoon in the park crescendo: a balloon for her love, a ship for their relationship, the big cats at the Central Park Zoo for her mysterious urges and longings, a 3-way mirror for her conflicted emotions. Somehow the sheer power of the writing slaps a fresh coat of paint on all of them, which still looks new after 62 years. I don't know how he does it, but I do know that he does do it. Maybe we have forgotten the beauty of clear-eyed sincerity. They don't make writing like this anymore.


Patry Francis said...

You know I've been really slacking on reading my New Yorker fiction since you stopped reviewing it. Now, once again, you've got me searching my magazine stack...Maybe you'd reconsider?

Grendel said...

Whip 'em out and dust 'em off! I'm going to dip in and out of it unpredictably.