Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Ghost writers


Haunted authors cling in decline

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Capote in Kansas: a Ghost Story by Kim Powers; Carroll & Graf, $25.

A number of prerequisite readings will make Kim Powers' novel Capote in Kansas even more enjoyable than it is, and it is. They should include the "new journalism" classic In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, To Kill a Mockingbird by his longtime friend Nelle Harper Lee, and the various biographies and magazine articles about the two writers, who shared childhoods in the South, aided each other's bestselling efforts, but eventually parted ways as fame, fortune, and eventual creative failure interfered.

It also helps to be interested in just why these two celebrated authors seemed to have run out of gas at a certain point. A good reference would be finding a copy of the Merv Griffin or Dick Cavett shows of the 1970s, to once again witness Capote in his elegant decline.

Of course, the crib notes version of prepping for Kim Powers' touching and often hilarious (if you know his accuracy and contrasting playfulness with the subject matter) novel is simply to watch any of the various recent film versions of Capote's life and the tumultuous results of writing In Cold Blood. Rent To Kill a Mockingbird, too.

Powers' creative rewriting of many events covered in the films goes a bit further into the "why" of Capote's motivation, unlike the dueling impersonations on film. (Interestingly, a graphic novel, Capote in Kansas, written by Ande Parks, with art by Chris Samnee, has also been published by Oni Press this year.)

When Truman calls Nelle in a panic, claiming that the ghosts of the Clutters are visiting Capote nightly, both authors' lives are set off in a sort of unraveling. The murdered Kansas farm family's story compelled Capote's trek and subsequent bestseller. Lee served as Capote's assistant, typist and occasional go-between in Kansas, where his effeminate and eccentric comportment initially failed.

So what happened to the two writers? Why did they work so well together, then fall out as friends? What do the dead want? Did making them posthumously famous curse Capote?

The diminutive writer's latter days spent in Palm Spring are detailed, including escapades with a "trade" worker and romantic interest, as well as the conspiratorial activities told from the viewpoint of his maid when Capote seeks revenge against his conniving lover by pouring sugar into his car's gas tank.

Meanwhile, Harper Lee, known to friends as Nelle, spends a lot of time fending off her nosy sister, who wants to know if she's ever going to crank out another bestseller.

Nelle begins to receive a series of artful yet malevolently decorated boxes with tiny coffins. While she's sure they're from Capote (Powers offers a clever explanation for the writer's actual secret art project, a series of collage boxes), they frighten her as much as Capote's alleged ghosts.

Powers, whose own life became the subject of his first book, a memoir (The History of Swimming), weaves a deft and clever rewriting of what is known and fabricated about these two mysterious authors, both of whom became national celebrities in the 1950s, but both of whom failed to continue their success.

In a way, Powers enacts a sort of revenge on Capote, who was known to change details of In Cold Blood to satisfy his own writing. Perhaps the Clutters are satisfied. Living readers will be satisfied as well.

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