In Cold Blood

I picked up Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for the first time this weekend. I am only a hundred pages in thus far, but I can only begin to suggest how artfully he frames the narrative in the first fifty pages. I have yet to see the film starring Robert Blake, and I am kind of glad I held out because after finishing the book I would be very interested to see how they translated this narrative. The book seems almost written for the screen, the way in which it cuts between the narratives of the Clutter family and the murderers harrowing movement towards what is written as if it were the violent destiny for everyone involved in this macabre documentary tale. It is really masterful how the juxtaposition of the family’s daily routine with a more detailed portrait of violence personified by these two murderers creates a tension and compassion that is as masterful a narrative splicing as I have yet to read.

I also was struck by a few of the symbolic harbingers of things to come. One, in particular, struck me more than the other in the first fifty pages of the book -the description of Mr. Clutter admonishing his son Kenyon not to ride his horse too hard:

“Skeeter was a horse.” A beautiful horse. A strawberry stallion he [Kenyon] had raised from a foal. How that Skeeter could take a fence! “You use a horse too hard,” his father had cautioned him, “One day you’ll ride the life out of Skeeter.” And he had; while Skeeter was streaking down a road with his master astride him, his heart failed, and he stumbled and was dead.

A vivid moment that captures the immediacy of death, and how quickly it can all be turned off. A theme Capote elaborately weaves throughout the first one hundred pages so brilliantly. Yet, I had only ever seen horses as majestic, powerful beasts who move so swiftly and gracefully, and yet are somehow rooted to the earth. Being a city boy, I have never seen a dead horse, and have to admit that I didn’t really have the imaginative power to represent what it might look like. But then, as if by some metaphysical convergence, I came across the following image in FoToEdge’s Flickrstream, whose photographs constantly inspire so much emotion and thought for me, but this one was one in particular was just downright unheimlich.

Image of dead horse.

And the two separate works of art all became that much more beautifully horrific for me.

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3 Responses to In Cold Blood

  1. Tony D'Ambra says:

    Interesting stuff Jim. I am reminded of the chapter, ‘The Breeding Barn’ in that great modern American novel by Tom Wolfe, A Man In Full, which btw is even better than Bonfire of the Vanities. Sadly, Wolfe hasn’t written anything as good since.

    In that chapter Wolfe graphically describes in wonderful prose the impregnation of a brood mare by the stud stallion at Charlie Croker’s beloved Turpmtime ranch. It is a brilliant evocation of sex as death in procreation. The horse doesn’t die, but the description of ‘le petit mort’ is potent:

    “Suddenly the slide ended, the paroxysmal jerks ceased, and the stallion gave a sigh and a noisy groan, a cross between a snort and a whinny. A pathetic whine was what it was, compared to the mighty overture he had sung just seconds before. Then he slid back off the mare. His forelegs looked more ridiculous then ever, as they slithered back over her hide. He was finished , utterly spent. Despite his enormous size, he suddenly looked powerless… The great beast looked dead, out on his feet.”

  2. jimgroom says:

    Wow, Tony. What a beautifully framed comment that offers an excellent complement to this post. Pulling out the literary guns, I like it. To add a little bit more fuel, how about the scene from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment wherein Raskolnikov dreams of watching a horse being beat to death by its owner, as he had when he was a child of seven:

    They all clambered into Mikolka’s cart, laughing and making jokes. Six men got in and there was still room for more. They hauled in a fat, rosy-cheeked woman. She was dressed in red cotton, in a pointed, beaded headdress and thick leather shoes; she was cracking nuts and laughing. The crowd round them was laughing too and indeed, how could they help laughing? That wretched nag was to drag all the cartload of them at a gallop! Two young fellows in the cart were just getting whips ready to help Mikolka. With the cry of “now,” the mare tugged with all her might, but far from galloping, could scarcely move forward; she struggled with her legs, gasping and shrinking from the blows of the three whips which were showered upon her like hail. The laughter in the cart and in the crowd was redoubled, but Mikolka flew into a rage and furiously thrashed the mare, as though he supposed she really could gallop.

    “Let me get in, too, mates,” shouted a young man in the crowd whose appetite was aroused.

    “Get in, all get in,” cried Mikolka, “she will draw you all. I’ll beat her to death!” And he thrashed and thrashed at the mare, beside himself with fury.

    “Father, father,” he cried, “father, what are they doing? Father, they are beating the poor horse!”

    “Come along, come along!” said his father. “They are drunken and foolish, they are in fun; come away, don’t look!” and he tried to draw him away, but he tore himself away from his hand, and, beside himself with horror, ran to the horse. The poor beast was in a bad way. She was gasping, standing still, then tugging again and almost falling.

    “Beat her to death,” cried Mikolka, “it’s come to that. I’ll do for her!”

    “What are you about, are you a Christian, you devil?” shouted an old man in the crowd.

    “Did anyone ever see the like? A wretched nag like that pulling such a cartload,” said another.

    “You’ll kill her,” shouted the third.

    “Don’t meddle! It’s my property, I’ll do what I choose. Get in, more of you! Get in, all of you! I will have her go at a gallop! . . .”

    All at once laughter broke into a roar and covered everything: the mare, roused by the shower of blows, began feebly kicking. Even the old man could not help smiling. To think of a wretched little beast like that trying to kick!

    Two lads in the crowd snatched up whips and ran to the mare to beat her about the ribs. One ran each side.

    “Hit her in the face, in the eyes, in the eyes,” cried Mikolka.

    “Give us a song, mates,” shouted someone in the cart and everyone in the cart joined in a riotous song, jingling a tambourine and whistling. The woman went on cracking nuts and laughing.. . He ran beside the mare, ran in front of her, saw her being whipped across the eyes, right in the eyes! He was crying, he felt choking, his tears were streaming. One of the men gave him a cut with the whip across the face, he did not feel it. Wringing his hands and screaming, he rushed up to the grey-headed old man with the grey beard, who was shaking his head in disapproval. One woman seized him by the hand and would have taken him away, but he tore himself from her and ran back to the mare. She was almost at the last gasp, but began kicking once more.

    “I’ll teach you to kick,” Mikolka shouted ferociously. He threw down the whip, bent forward and picked up from the bottom of the cart a long, thick shaft, he took hold of one end with both hands and with an effort brandished it over the mare.

    “He’ll crush her,” was shouted round him. “He’ll kill her!”

    “It’s my property,” shouted Mikolka and brought the shaft down with a swinging blow. There was a sound of a heavy thud.

    “Thrash her, thrash her! Why have you stopped?” shouted voices in the crowd.

    And Mikolka swung the shaft a second time and it fell a second time on the spine of the luckless mare. She sank back on her haunches, but lurched forward and tugged forward with all her force, tugged first on one side and then on the other, trying to move the cart. But the six whips were attacking her in all directions, and the shaft was raised again and fell upon her a third time, then a fourth, with heavy measured blows. Mikolka was in a fury that he could not kill her at one blow.

    “She’s a tough one,” was shouted in the crowd.

    “She’ll fall in a minute, mates, there will soon be an end of her,” said an admiring spectator in the crowd.

    “Fetch an axe to her! Finish her off,” shouted a third.

    “I’ll show you! Stand off,” Mikolka screamed frantically; he threw down the shaft, stooped down in the cart and picked up an iron crowbar. “Look out,” he shouted, and with all his might he dealt a stunning blow at the poor mare. The blow fell; the mare staggered, sank back, tried to pull, but the bar fell again with a swinging blow on her back and she fell on the ground like a log.

    “Finish her off,” shouted Mikolka and he leapt beside himself, out of the cart. Several young men, also flushed with drink, seized anything they could come across–whips, sticks, poles, and ran to the dying mare. Mikolka stood on one side and began dealing random blows with the crowbar. The mare stretched out her head, drew a long breath and died.

    “You butchered her,” someone shouted in the crowd.

    “Why wouldn’t she gallop then?”

    “My property!” shouted Mikolka, with bloodshot eyes, brandishing the bar in his hands. He stood as though regretting that he had nothing more to beat. (From Chapter 5)

  3. Tony D'Ambra says:

    A whole new can of worms Jim. Dostoevsky takes us down down down into the darkest chamber of the human psyche, and the ugly realm of the mob. Upfront I am a lefty, so my politics will color my analysis.

    Dostoevsky is a subversive, an outsider if you will, and he rips away the hypocritical facade of society to its elementals: power based on property, stupidity, indifference, and moral turpitude. Three times Mikolka refers to the poor doomed beast as his “property” – he owns the creature body and soul, and he can destroy it by his capricious will alone. The bourgeois and the rest of society, the mob, are equally complicit. The innocent child aka adult nihilist Raskolnikov is the only “soul” that is outraged. The Russian aristocracy of pre-revolution Russia of course measured their wealth as the number of “souls”, serfs, they owned.

    The young nihilist Bazarov, in Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons”, is another “soul” that sees into the dark heart of society, but unlike Raskolnikov, doesn’t get a second chance and is destroyed by a banal random act of fate. Prince Myshkin, Dostoevky’s “Idiot”, another outsider, is also destroyed by society.

    In my post “Film Noir’s Anti-Hero: The Outsider”, I quote from Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (1956, Gollanz, London) regarding the outsider’s perspective:

    “What can be said to characterise the Outsider is a sense of strangeness, or unreality… The Outsider is a man who has awakened to chaos… Even if there seems no room for hope, truth must be told… chaos must be faced.”

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