"He'd be all right if he took his finger out of his mouth.'
-- Harold Robbins
"He thinks he's Bunny Mellon." -- Gore Vidal
"That boy is so strange, he doesn't look or act like a normal boy. He's just like his father sometimes -- little Miss Mouse Fart."
-- Lillie Mae Faulk, Truman Capote's mother
IN Conversations with Capote, he gets them all back. It's the ultimate revenge fantasy, rounding up all life's suspects and knocking them off one by one from the grave like so many fleas. "My field is the multiple murderer," the author of In Cold Blood modestly told interviewer Lawrence Grobel, the conductor of this post-mortem. Was there any doubt? Welcome to Truman Capote's little shop of horrors.
Extracted from two years of interview sessions with Capote before his death last August, Conversations with Capote is over 200 pages of unrelieved malice. It stings, it bullies, it revels in its own waste -- a waste of talent, time, and energy. One senses that Capote gave up all sense of direction and decorum after the appalling reception accorded his short story "La Cote Basque, 1965" -- a preview of the legendary, unfinished Answered Prayers -- when it was published in 1975. He was a broken man -- lost really -- and, waffling in and out of alcoholism and drug addiction, he was acutely aware that he had nothing else to lose. Who else would walk into a dinner party, spot the most famous woman in the world, turn to the hostess, "and perfectly sober" announce, "Why didn't you tell me this tramp was going to come so I wouldn't have come?"
This book is the fall-out from all the slights (imagined and otherwise), the paranoia, the envy, the speckled reality of the odd man out. Interviewer Grobel, who has grilled Brando and Streisand for Playboy, plays a kind of free association game with Capote. Grobel tosses out a name and Chairman Capote, between sips of Stolichnaya, lets his fly swatter down with a loud splat. Hemingway is "a closet everything," Georgia O'Keeffe "a horrible person," Mark Twain "evil," Pynchon "ghastly," Eugene O'Neill "untalented," Dostoyevsky "lousy," Auden "a dictatorial bastard," and so on.
What's surprising is that the venom is so indiscriminate, often irrational and unprovoked. Of Joyce Carol Oates, whose only sin is apparently sending valentines, he says, "She's a joke monster who ought to be beheaded in a public auditorium . . ." Grobel asks, "Have you ever met her?" to which Capote replies, "I've seen her, and to see her is to loathe her." Meryl Streep, he thinks, "is the Creep. Ooh, God, she looks like a chicken. She's got a nose like a chicken and a mouth like a chicken."
If Capote often resembles a mad-dog Hedda Gabler bulldozing his way over everything in his path to self-destruction, there are moments when it appears the Ibsen heroine has jetted to a Manhattan penthouse and arranged a sense of humor in the bargain. He calls Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas "a great Mutt-and-Jeff team." Andr,e Gide "was just a big old French queen with a rough face." And his description of causing Jacqueline Susann's death is so gleefully awful that the dark side of you caves in and out erupts a horrifying horselaugh.
MOSTLY, Capote is outrageous in a blowsy, we'll- sing-'em-all-tonight fashion. His description of a visit to a necrophiliac bar where people "met and exchanged addresses of funeral parlors" is sheer malarkey.
Even more fanciful -- but wickedly entertaining -- are reminiscences from Capote's dance card. Everyone has heard of Capote's alleged dalliances with legends from French literature and Hollywood (Errol Flynn, indeed!), but one doubts that the bulletin that Capote consorted with a former candidate for president of the United States has been heard 'round the world. What if this man had been elected? "Well . . . I don't know what I would have done to the Rose Garden!" As Gore Vidal wrote in 1976: "Apparently, the very sight of (Capote) was enough to cause lifelong heterosexual men to tumble out of unsuspected closets . . . I should note here that the young Capote was no less attractive in his person then than he is today."
Grobel devotes an entire chapter to Capote purring on the fun cousins Vidal, Jacqueline Onassis, and Lee Radziwill. But by then all perspective has collapsed in a half-in-the-bag sea of prejudices. On feminism Capote asks, "What do these old broads want, anyway? They're lucky to be allowed to have a roof over their heads." Blacks are "colored," a homosexual cardinal is a "hypocrite faggot," and Yoko Ono is a "Jap." This is Capote unleashed and unexpurgated with the manners, if not the style, of an alley cat who has rubbed against the feet of the glitterati and has been booted out.
Conversations with Capote is an extraordinary document, a kind of theatrical stunt in which the audience, not the performer, jumps through the hoops. It's sadly riveting, a last prank from the court jester of American literature -- a final revenge being the apparently nonexistent Answered Prayers. Capote wasn't only gunning down celebrity those last years; he was planning a posthumous bit of mischief, and the joke's on us.