ANSWERED PRAYERS: The Unfinished Novel By Truman Capote Random House. 180 pp. $16.95 A CAPOTE READER. By Truman Capote Random House. 722 pp. $25 I REMEMBER GRANDPA. By Truman Capote Illustrated by Barry Moser Peachtree. 37 pp. $14.95 "DEAR GENIUS . . . ": A Memoir of My Life with Truman Capote By Jack Dunphy McGraw-Hill. 275 pp. $17.95
UNFINISHED IS hardly the word. The novel Truman Capote carried about in swaddling clothes and nurtured on bragging and booze for the last dozen years of his life was barely begun.
In 1972, four years after the original due date for Answered Prayers, and the year he first put pen to paper, Capote predicted that it would be "triple the length of all my other books combined." What he wrote comes to much less, literally and figuratively.
If Capote had been less prone to treat this opus as the measure of his literary destiny, it might well have been published today as a "notebook" or as "sketches," and thus appreciated for what it is rather than for what it might have been. However it is labeled, Answered Prayers is a coldly accurate memorial to the writer's worst days. It contains isolated examples of Capote at his keen-eared, story-telling best, and of Capote at his pickle-brained, gossip-mongering worst -- examples suspended in an aspic of undistinguished other stuff.
Capote had the title of this novel in mind from the outset. It comes from a phrase attributed to Saint Therese: "More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones." Capote must have appreciated the irony of having shed so many tears over this unanswered prayer of a novel.
James Fox, Capote's longtime Random House editor, writes in a brief introductory note of Capote's "guilt and panic about his lack of progress on Answered Prayers," all his neuroses in symbiosis with pills and alcohol on the long slide to his last reward. Over Fox's objections, four chapters -- probably the only four chapters ever written -- of the novel-in-progress were published in Esquire magazine in 1975 and 1976, causing a ruckus that, like so much that happened in Capote's orbit, seems quaint in retrospect.
The critical opinion of the time was that the writing was embarrassingly bad; the more damning social palaver was that it was badly embarrassing to the author's nearest and dearest for the secrets it revealed. Though publicly Capote was unrepentant, the cold shoulders his friends turned on him after the Esquire pieces were published are said to have deepened his creative paralysis and fueled its destructive chemical outlets.
Capote excised one of those Esquire chapters for inclusion in Music for Chameleons, his 1980 collection and the last book he published in his lifetime. This slender volume contains the other three. According to a self-interview he conducted in 1972, Capote envisioned Answered Prayers as a sprawling, glittering novel of the type Judith Krantz might produce today: "an extraordinary young woman who has had fifty affairs, could have married virtually anyone, but for twelve years has loved an 'older' man who can't marry because he is married, and won't divorce because he expects, with reasonable cause, to be the next President of the United States."
Presumably, in Answered Prayers that woman is the untouchably beautiful, impossibly sensitive, enthrallingly mysterious Kate McCloud, into whose exquisite company the personable but sly young narrator, P.B. Jones -- masseur, writer, gigolo -- is introduced. The distant trumpet of a plot is heard at the book's midsection for the first time, and then is heard no more.
Leading up to this event, and almost utterly unconnected to it, is P.B. Jones' rather charming personal account of providing backrubs and bon mots to the richest sybarites on two continents, many of them with names you would recognize and peccadilloes you might not.
MOST OF THE best anecdotes cannot be repeated here, as much for reasons of defamation as much as propriety. But even at his most careless, Capote could sketch a personage quicker than a curbside artist: "Walleyed, pipe-sucking, pasty-hued Sartre and his spinsterish moll, de Beauvoir, were usually propped in a corner like an abandoned pair of ventriloquist's dolls."
Capote's Southern genes empowered him to say exactly what he thought, here coyly, there demonically. American expatriates, he wrote, are "among the planet's most pathetric tribes, sadder than a huddle of homeless eskimos starving through a winter night seven months long. Those who pursue it after age twenty-five, thirty at the limit, learn that what seemed paradise is mere scenery, a curtain that, lifting, reveals pitchforks and fire."
Occasionally, he turns bilious: "Every writer has his tricks, and sooner or later the critics catch them. That's all right; they love you as long as they've got you identified. My mistake was I got sick of my old tricks and learned some new ones. Critics won't put up with that; they hate versatility -- they don't like to see a writer grow or change in any way." That's likely the truth, but Capote's glass house was no place to be uttering it.
The final chapter is named for the restaurant where Capote was a fixture in the 1970s, "La Co~te Basque." It makes almost no pretense of being other than morsels of the author's favorite lunchtime gossip. Most of these stories are salacious, and most of them name redoubtable names. They are told in a facile purr, with the quickened pulse of a confidence being broken.
It was this massive indiscretion, as Esquire published it, that had the society ladies reeling, nursing the wound of the mascot's bite. "What did they expect?" Capote was said to have exclaimed. "Did all those people think I was there just to entertain them?" They probably did, but that's another story.
Speaking of other stories, and much better ones, Random House is bringing out, perhaps as consolation to readers of Answered Prayers, a handsome omnibus of all but the biggest hunks of Truman Capote's work. The Grass Harp and Breakfast at Tiffany's, his polished novellas, are here in their entirety. So is Capote's first stab at the "nonfiction novel" he later perfected in In Cold Blood, a droll account of a troupe of black actors performing Porgy and Bess in the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s. So too are a dozen short stories, and travel sketches, portraits, essays and other bits.
Not in this volume, but in a lovely Peachtree Publisher's edition enhanced by Barry Moser's watercolors, is I Remember Grandpa, a sweet story Capote wrote for one of the aunts who looked after him during his peripatetic childhood, and which she unearthed after his death.
And then there's "Dear Genius . . ." This peculiar artifact, by a novelist named Jack Dunphy who was Capote's lover and companion for many years, attempts simultaneous homage to the man and the nonfiction novel. The three main characters are Dunphy, Capote and a priest named Father John Synge, apparently Dunphy's fictional alter ego. The book is no doubt deeply felt, and certainly creative, but it is hard to tell what is remembered and what is invented, and harder still to care.
Charles Trueheart writes for the Style section of The Washington Post.