No 592 The Grass Harp by Truman Capote

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‘Do you hear? That is the grass harp, always telling a story – it knows the stories of all the people on the hill, of all the people who ever lived, and when we are dead it will tell ours too.’

I have wanted to take part in one of Simon and Karen’s year events for quite a while, so when I saw that the 1951 club was coming up I had a good rummage through my books and (assisted by Wikipedia!) found I had two possibilities for books published in 1951, My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier and The Grass Harp by Truman Capote.

I haven’t reviewed any Capote on the blog before and I am a fan of In Cold Blood and Other Voices, Other Rooms. The Grass Harp then, was a lovely surprise – a sweet, amusing and heart-warming tale of friendship, family and finding your place in the world. The Grass Harp ultimately reminded me, at the end of the day, of what a bloody god writer Capote was and how his personality and legend can sometimes overshadow the beauty of his prose.

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Based loosely on Capote’s early life, The Grass Harp is narrated by Collin, who is looking back on his childhood. Following the death of his father, Collin is sent to live with two of his father’s cousins, Dolly and Verena. Verena is the formidable matriarch of the family, a shrewd business woman who is stern and controlling. Dolly, on the other hand, is a warm homebody, looking after Verena, taking Collin under her wind and making her dropsy cure that she sells via the postal system.  Dolly is a dreamer, living in her bright pink bedroom and never straying far from the homely kitchen where she spends her time with Collin and her toothless friend Catherine.

If some wizard would like to make me a present, let him give me a bottle filled with the voices of that kitchen, the ha ha ha and the fire whispering, a bottle brimming with its buttery sugary bakery spells

Residents in the town refer to Dolly as being ‘gone’ in the head, a charge sometimes laid against Collin too. It is an unusual household for a young boy on the cusp of manhood, but the situation becomes more unusual when Verena tries to commercialise Dolly’s dropsy cure by purchasing a factory with the help of the mysterious Morris. Dolly is having none of it and together with Catherine and Collin they run away and take up residence in a tree-house. While there, they are joined by a rebellious teen Riley and a widowed and retired Judge, Charlie Cool.

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Image: Shuterstock

 

To say anymore would be to spoil the story, but what follows is a comic yet emotional parable of what you need to do to find your place in the world. Dolly, considered to be slow, ‘possibly insane’ by her townsfolk, Collin, the orphan and Catherine, the crazy black woman are all outcasts in their own way, outsiders who yearn for acceptance and belonging.

As they pass cosy but fraught hours in their treehouse, they find allies in Riley and Judge Cool and that acceptance turns to friendship and even love.

It may be that there is no place for any of us. Except, we know there is, somewhere: and if we found it, but lived there only a moment, we could count ourselves blessed.

They briefly and sweetly find their place and their freedom and this one, ridiculous, headstrong action opens up a world of possibility to these characters, reminding them that they can still make decisions that matter, they can still take responsibility for their own lives.

“Is it true, Charlie” Dolly asked, as a child might ask where do falling stars fall? and: “Have we had our lives?”

The Grass Harp is filled with some lovely writing, descriptive yet simple, with not a word wasted.

Wind surprised, pealed the leaves, parted night clouds; showers of starlight were let loose

Capote, always so good at characterisation, excels here, with every character leaping off the page. Even background characters, such as a local bakery owner, or the girl that Collin is in love with are fully realised, creating a world that hums and glows with a warm, nostalgic light. For the most part, Capote eschews the conventions of Southern fiction and by doing so creates a timeless, vivid novella that reminds us that

Love is a chain of love, as nature is a chain of life.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 155

Number Remaining: 591

The Books That Built The Blogger: The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

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“I do something truly innovative, and who gets the prizes? Norman Mailer!”

Truman Capote

 

If I had to choose my top five favourite books of all time, two of those five would be fictionalised accounts of real life events – Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates and Underworld by Don DeLillo. There is something about a novel which has, at its base, an actual lived experience that appeals greatly to me.

My fascination with the genre is in the melding of straight, factual journalism and the imagination of the author. Like a journalist, these stories have the facts; the who, where and what and show us the surface of the story. But a fictionalised telling has the luxury of time and of research and can take the reader beyond the facts, developing characters, creating consciousness and positing theories. Non-fiction becomes novel. Tom Wolfe in his book The New Journalism said

It was in the nature of a discovery. This discovery, modest at first, humble, in fact, deferential, you might say, was that it just might be possible to write journalism that would…read like a novel. Like a novel, if you get the picture. This was the sincerest form of homage to The Novel and to those greats, the novelists, of course.

The easy assumption would be that In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, arguably the most famous of this style of writing, was the gateway to my interest, but a closer look at where my fascination started, has brought me to The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, which he classed as ‘A True Life Novel’.

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I’ve read a lot of Mailer over the years and the one thing that can be said about him is that you can never forget that Mailer is writing the book. His brashness, showiness and swagger can be both intoxicating and maddening at the same time. Mailer is no stranger to the fictionalised, journalistic approach to writing, exploring as he has the lives of Lee Harvey Oswald, Marilyn Monroe and Mohammad Ali. But it is in The Executioner’s Song that Mailer so perfectly steps into the background of his tale. Exploring the violent, short and brutal life of killer Gary Gilmore, Mailer seems to have realised that his strength lies in exercising the self-control that Gilmore himself could not. The book has its ultimate anti-hero and Mailer allows him the total focus.

Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared. The apple trees were their grandmother’s best crop and it was forbidden to climb in the orchard. She helped him drag away the tree limb and they hoped no one would notice. That was Brenda’s earliest recollection of Gary.

Before he died, by firing squad at the age of 36, Gilmore had spent 18 of his 35 years in jail. The Executioner’s Song follows Gary’s life, from his release on parole in 1976 on the guarantee of his cousin Brenda to his execution at Utah State Prison in 1977. On parole, Gilmore was both charming and dangerous. Smart, with a talent for drawing, he couldn’t quite escape his own volatility and the prison values he had effectively grown up with. Within a matter of weeks he had moved in with Nicole Baker, an impressionable 19 year old mother of two, who adored him. Theirs was a dramatic, chaotic relationship and although they professed obsessive love for each other, Nicole was victim to his Gary’s frightening tempers and was frequently beaten.

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Gary Gilmore, 1977

 

She finally left him and Gilmore snapped. He robbed and shot an unresisting gas-station attendant and a hotel manager, but was quickly arrested and sentenced to death. Gilmore never denied his crimes, nor did he make any attempt to justify them and he agreed that he deserved to die, however, no one on Death Row in Utah had been executed in ten years. He did not want to spend the rest of this life on Death Row and despite campaigns to save him, he took a legal case for the state of Utah to kill him, by firing squad, as soon as they could. His case called the entire judicial system and the legality of the death penalty into question. Finally, after several stays of execution, Gary Gilmore got his wish and was killed by firing squad in January 1977. His fight for his sentence to be carried out was borne with a dignity and a bravery that he had not afforded his victims.

Then the Warden said, “Do you have anything you’d like to say?” and Gary looked up at the ceiling and hesitated, then said, “Let’s do it.” That was it. The most pronounced amount of courage, Vern decided, he’d ever seen, no quaver, no throatiness, right down the line.

Before his death, Gilmore sold the rights to his life story to journalist and filmmaker Larry Schiller, who then passed it to Mailer to write. Mailer called Schiller ‘a writer with no hands’ but took this story and made it into a classic of literature.

What was most surprising about this was that the Gary Gilmore story was everywhere in the 1970s. It had been pored over and pawed apart on television, in newspapers and in homes. The ending was never going to be a surprise so there would be no conventional narrative tension, therefore the question was, what was Mailer going to do with it? And could he keep ‘Norman Mailer’ out of it?

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Norman Mailer

 

What he did was to split his book into two parts. The first section ‘Western Voices’, is a direct telling of Gary Gilmore’s story from his release from prison in April 1976 to his arrest, told in the flat, plain mid-Western voices of those around him, mostly the women who were a part of his life. His cousin Brenda, his partner Nicole and his mother Betsey capture a world of desolation and hopelessness with a poignancy of passive acceptance. This, they say, is life and they can do little to change it.

What sparse imagery there is, is that of sinking, of falling – as Brenda had from the apple tree – with nothing to cushion the fall. Mailer perfectly captures the defeated working class frame of mind and allows it to take centre stage without his usual linguistic showiness. The research is meticulous, the story detailed, presenting the man behind the myth and moving relentless towards his inevitable end.

‘Eastern Voices’, the second part of the reveals how the machinery then kicks into place. The voices here – mostly male – are the lawyers, the reporters, the television anchors who covered the story. It focuses on the trial, the fight to be allowed to die and the execution and its fall out. It also features of course, Larry Schiller, whose story this literally and ultimately became. In Eastern Voices, the camera is panning out and the man at the centre, Gary Gilmore, becomes a smaller figure in a wider story which takes on a life of its own.

I think The Executioner’s Song, more than any book I’ve ever done, was an exercise in craft, I’ve never felt close to it

I feel that Mailer has done a disservice to The Executioner’s Song by referring to it as an ‘exercise’ and relegating it to the second division of his body of work. It is a vast, epic book, yet also detailed, nuanced and strangely beautiful. Mailer doesn’t ask for pity for Gilmore, Gilmore never asked for it himself, nor did he give it to his victims. And yet, we do end up feeling pity despite ourselves. The reality of the death penalty is shocking, with the last minute reprieves (sometimes with minutes to go) and the endless legal wrangling seeming often like a form of torture. As a treatise on capital punishment and human nature it is invaluable book, while also being a moving portrait of the quiet, hopeless lives rarely explored in literature.

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The Executioner’s Song was the start of my love for this genre of writing. It lead me to Joyce Carol Oates, who explored the lives of Marilyn Munroe (Blonde) and Jon-Benet Ramsey (My Sister, My Love) and the Chappaquiddick incident (Black Water) with such skill. I wouldn’t have read Gordon Burn, Don DeLillo (Libra, about Lee Harvey Oswald) or Truman Capote. More recent books such as Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites or Emma Cline’s The Girls shows that, as readers, we still want to read behind the facts and explore the worlds behind the sketched outlines.

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Tommy Lee Jones as Gary Gilmore

 

The Executioner’s Song was also made into a movie, directed by Larry Schiller with a screen play by Mailer and a searing, Emmy award-winning performance from a young Tommy Lee Jones. It is well worth checking out.

Check back in to the blog tomorrow when Karen, from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings will be talking about the books that have made her!