Capote, Truman: “In Cold Blood” and McCarthy, Cormac: No Country for Old Men

The proposer put forward two American books: “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote (1966) and “No Country for Old Men” (2005) by Cormac McCarthy for discussion and comparison. Introducing the books he said that, when recently reading the McCarthy book for the first time, he was forcibly struck by its resemblance to “In Cold Blood”, specifically in the theme of cold-blooded killing. This had made him re-read “In Cold Blood” for the first time since the Eighties.

 Cormac McCarthy was an award-winning novelist born in 1933 – intriguingly only nine years after Capote. McCarthy was famous for “Blood Meridian” and for his “Border Trilogy ”, which included “All the Pretty Horses”. That trilogy had focussed lovingly on horses, but in recent times he had focussed mainly on “post-modern” westerns, and in this story the lovingly described pick-up truck had replaced the horse. This book had received mixed reviews, and would probably be judged as a minor work compared to the former, or indeed “The Road”, also published in 2005.

 However, “No Country for Old Men” had gripped the proposer from the outset, and he had found it impossible to put it down. The plot fizzed right from the start, and there was a constant curiosity – and dread – about the evolution of events. The main characters – Llewlyn Moss, Sheriff Bell, Carson Wells and Anton Chigurh, were entwined in a death ritual.

 An important theme was that of pre-destiny and fate, and particularly significant were the two scenes where Chigurh asked his victim to toss a coin to determine life or death. Another example was at the defining moment where Moss found the drug money, and sees his life sitting in front of him:

 “His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel”

 Alliteration helped give the passage its impact.

 McCarthy had been noted earlier in his career for an ornate writing style (“wisteria-like prose” or “battered ormolu” as described by two critics) yet this book was written in an exceptionally sparse, staccato, minimalist style. The plot is dialogue-driven. This striking new style had attracted very mixed responses, but such a transformation in style was remarkable for a novelist in his seventies.

 The novel was a moral lament for the loss of the old West and the current moral degradation of America. This emerged in the monologues of the Sheriff, who had spent his whole life trying to make up for sacrificing his buddies in the war.

 Chigurh was an astonishing character – an extreme psychopath whose cold-blooded killing links to the Capote book. There was an element of the angel of death about him. Intriguingly he said to Carla Jean that “Most people don’t recognise I exist” which raised the question of whether he was a real character.

 Truman Capote (1924-1984) was an American writer whose non-fiction, stories, novels and plays were recognised literary classics. He remains a major literary figure, best known for “In Cold Blood” (1965) and for the novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1958). At least 20 films and TV dramas have been produced from his works.

 The book was such a classic that it required less by way of introduction. Re-reading it he had wondered if the Clutter family had been overly idealized. There were similarities between the two books in the innocent towns affected by the killings, and in the characters of the policemen, Dewey and Bell, neither of who had seen anything as degraded and vicious before. However, Dewey was a more successful Sheriff than Bell, and did not give up. The moral degradation theme of “No Country for Old Men” is picked up by Dewey:

 “I’ve seen some bad things, I sure as hell have. But nothing as vicious as this.”

 The questions of motive were also different: in “In Cold Blood” motive was a very big issue. It was a “whydunnit” rather than a “whodunnit”. Capote tries to build up an understanding of the killers, their backgrounds and their meeting, and to establish a motive, or cause, for their actions – were the killings the product of nature or nurture? While there is an ostensible motive – the supposed safe – the killings according to the confessions seem to result from a loss of control when trying to extract the location of the safe from Clutter, and then the next three killings are to prevent them being identified. Capote is very slow and painstaking in describing the factual events from several perspectives – this creates an illusion of scientific truth, of verisimilitude, which may or may not be true. Capote’s leisurely style, as he tries to draw you inside the minds of the murderers, is in sharp contrast to McCarthy.

 By contrast McCarthy seems to say you do not need a motive other than logic and fate. There is a drugs plot in his book, but it seems almost incidental.

 The bulk of the discussion focussed on “No Country for Old Men”, with three issues dominating: McCarthy’s style, the plot structure, and the significance of the character Chigurh.

 McCarthy’s pared-down style provoked very different responses. For some, the short sentences and the lack of quotation marks or conventional introductions to sections of speech heightened the tautness and suspense of the narrative. He effectively conveyed the sense of emptiness of the Mexican border landscape, although his prose lacked fluidity. Even if it were sometimes confusing to work out who was speaking or who the “he” was who was acting, the reader was kept on his toes in trying to figure out what was going on.

 Others, by contrast, found his style irritating – a pretentious gesture in the direction of modernism. The lack of quotation marks and the lack of direction as to who “he” was simply confusing, affected and a failure in the writer’s basic task of communication. For example, it took quite a while to work out who was giving the monologues. The novel lost rather than gained from such a lack of narrative clarity.

 We had some discussion about influences on McCarthy, suggesting Hemingway for the succinct type of description that influenced so many, and Elmore Leonard for some of the pared-down style. James Hadley Chase frequently used the plot motif of the small-time player finding a cache of criminal money. We noted that the title came from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” (“That is no country for old men. The young/ in one another’s arms, birds in the trees/ – Those dying generations – at their song, ….”). To quote from the later Yeats is suggestive, given that Yeats’ style had undergone a transformation from the adjectival, aesthetic style of his fin de siecle period to the much tauter and sparser style of his later books such as “The Tower” (1928), from which this poem is taken. We also noted that the book sometimes read like a film script, and that the number of killings rivalled a Tarantino film such as “Pulp Fiction” (although lacking the Tarantino sense of humour).

 The plot structure was unusual: instead of good triumphing over evil as in the traditional Western or crime thriller, the sheriff reverted to his war-time pattern by deciding to cut and run, leaving the field to the evil Chigurh. You were denied the comfortable moral conclusion that you expected in a novel concerned with crime. While many killings took centre stage, the protagonist Moss was strangely killed off stage, while even Chigurh disappeared for the last section of the novel.

 Even in a tragedy there is normally something asserted about human life which is uplifting, but here one was left with a sense of emptiness, with the only possible positives being the good nature of the sheriff and his relationship with his wife Loretta. It was a profoundly pessimistic, indeed nihilist book. Some felt that there was always danger in a writer thus departing from the traditional narrative forms and sense of an ending, such was their archetypal force. On the other hand, the downbeat ending and the unconventional structure signalled clearly that the novel was not intended to be a conventional thriller.

 So what was it about? The evil of Chigurh and the modern world of drug-running, guns and senseless murder was counterpointed against the traditional values of the West, as espoused by the sheriff (the old man of the title) and expounded by him in the folksy monologues that were interspersed with the narrative.

 The moral focus of the book was to be found in the sheriff’s monologues. To a left wing woman who says she wants the future America to allow her daughter to have an abortion, he observes:

 “The way the country is headed…I don’t have much doubt that…not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep.”

 Moreover, “someone the other morning asked me if I believed in Satan…I guess as a boy I did. Come the middle years my belief I reckon had waned somewhat. Now I’m startin to lean back the other way…” .

 However, for one who disliked the book because he did not know who was doing what to whom, the Sheriff’s monologues were a contrived and clumsy superstructure, which could have been removed without loss. Others also felt that there was a dissonance between the moral message as expounded by the Sheriff and the undisguised relish, and excessive detail, with which the author describes killings and guns. All the dramatic energy goes into the description of evil.

 We had different ideas about the significance of Chigurh, although we all agreed that he was central to the book. Knowing that McCarthy likes to play with the names he gives characters, we sought the significance of the unusual name “Chigurh” (e.g.was it an anagram of the type “Britney Spears” = “Presbyterian”?) but could not find it. We learn little about him as a character, except that, surprisingly, he is interested in art. Most of us felt, however, that he was more the personification of a force of nature than a character as such. Was he an immoral, or perhaps an amoral, force? Did he characterise the forces of fate? Did he represent the lack of reason and justice in the world – the force of suffering? Or did he represent the force of the US Government (at one point the book suggests that the drug-smuggling is so profitable that the Mexican Government is likely to move in)? Was he a Satan figure as hinted at by the Sheriff?

 For many of us, he was the personification of the type of radical evil that takes a sadistic pleasure in killing, as shown in the coin-tossing scene, where he relishes trying to persuade Carla Jean that her death is inevitable. This was the type of wanton “in cold blood” killing that Capote explored, that had manifested itself in the Nazi concentration camps, and that evolutionary scientists found difficult to explain in terms of contributing anything constructive to evolution. In literary terms it was also the type of killing found in “A Clockwork Orange”.

 It was common in Britain to view us as dominated by the past whereas the US was dominated by the future. However, in fact it was common to find twentieth century American literature idealising the recent past, such as the West of the sheriff’s youth, or, in other books, baseball. Indeed most old people idealize their youth. On the other hand, it was the novelist’s legitimate role to mythologize, to imbue recent developments with emotions, as Dickens had done with urban development in Britain. But despite the elegiac title, the problem here was that much of the mythologizing, the loving emotion, was focussed on killing and on guns.

 Although we therefore had a number of different perspectives on “No Country for Old Men”, it proved a very stimulating and provocative choice. We felt it could best be assessed in context of the work of a writer nearing the end of his career, and as such it was an interesting coda to the discussion of Marquez’ late book “Memories of My Melancholy Whores”, which we discussed in October 2006. We looked forward to seeing the forthcoming Coen Brothers film of the McCarthy book.

 By contrast “In Cold Blood” met with more uniform approval, but less debate. Here was a fully realised work of art, which was Capote’s masterpiece. It was superb, and fully merited its classic status. It was of a different and higher order of achievement than “No Country for Old Men”. The book was a delight.

 His prose style was a “Rolls Royce” of writing ability, which had manifested itself in his earliest published work at the age of 19. It was very easy to read, effortlessly fluent and evocative, yet very precise. The beginning of the book lyrically captured the Kansas plains and their seasonal rhythm, and the cadences of the prose marked it out immediately as being of a very high order (although for some the passage was rather self-consciously crafted, and perhaps not quite appropriate for the subject matter to follow).

 There was a burning intensity of effort, a great imaginative pressure, to establish the full and precise truth of what had happened, and the personal history and psychology of the murderers, which might explain why. He showed the skill of journalism at its best, and the empathetic novel at its best, in even-handedly viewing the events from the perspective of the murdered family and the murderers, and indeed from the wider perspective of the whole local community. Was to understand all to forgive all?

 The book was structured with well-concealed skill, so that suspense and interest were maintained as the personal histories of the protagonists were woven seamlessly into the narrative. The only structural weakness came at the end, where the book lost its flow by diverting from its main theme and characters into giving the personal histories of the Death Row convicts, and for the first time revealed something of a personal agenda in opposing “in cold blood” judicial executions.

 The book was a remarkable change of tack for Capote well into his career, and we debated whether there were any real precedents for the book. The American detective novel had just reached its high point in the work of Raymond Chandler, but his works were not psychological studies of this kind. The “Notable Scottish Trials” series (with later English and British versions) had publicised and analysed famous murders in the early part of the century, but did not create the novel-like quality of Capote’s work. Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” did turn events that were largely factual into a novel, but we concluded that, to the best of our knowledge, Capote’s work was a major innovation. There had of course been plenty of imitations afterwards, up to and including recent “faction” such as the film “The Queen”, and it had also become more common to write biographies of ordinary people.

 Given that Capote lived for another 19 years, it was surprising that he did not try another book in the same genre. The reason must be the intensity of the emotional and imaginative effort in researching and writing the book. He said to his biographer that:

 “No-one will ever know what “In Cold Blood” took out of me. It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me…” .

 Indeed it has been argued it led to his alcoholism and death.

 We took the view that “In Cold Blood” needed to be taken on its own terms and assessed on its own merits as a book, without straying too far into the question of the process of the writing of the book, an issue that has preoccupied other writers and two recent films. We did, however, note that Capote became very friendly with Perry Smith, and, rightly or wrongly, presented him as the almost innocent victim of events, with Hickock as the real villain. Capote might have identified with Smith because of a shared personal history involving suicide and alcoholism. Intriguingly the gay Capote was coy on the subject of Smith’s sexuality, other than to bring out a psychiatrist’s suggestion that sexual inhibition was a common trait of “motiveless” murderers.

 On re-reading the book the proposer had found it implausible that the murders had been triggered in the meaningless way described. Perhaps if Hicock and Smith had found a safe filled with money the murders would never have happened: a more plausible supposition for him was that Smith had been enraged into murder by Hickock’s sexual advances to Nancy Clutter, given a prior homosexual relationship with Hickock in prison.

 We also thought that Kenneth Tynan’s accusation – that Capote needed an execution to round off the book, and had not done all he might have to prevent the execution – seemed far-fetched. Nevertheless, Capote was certainly guilty on some occasions of exploiting friendships for literary purposes – he had made many friends in high society, as shown by the remarkable guest list at the launch party of this book, but he had used these friends to write an exposure of the high society he had fed off. As a result he had been blacked and died friendless.

 Both books were products of a culture dominated by guns and cars. They were exploring what kinds of events were possible in a country of great distances – where people could appear out of nowhere in the middle of the night, commit random murder, then disappear again – and in a society where everyone owned a gun.