Truman Capote's Summer Crossing

Has there ever been a writer with more charm, more verve, than Truman Capote? At his best, Capote's writing is fizzing and vivacious, possessed of a crisp, almost electrifying lightness that sets it soaring above the desperate gravity of his plots. Capote has a great gift for combining acuteness of observation with an unparalleled lightness of touch, the combination of which makes his language sing off the page.

His newly published novel (dredged up from memorabilia discovered in 2004, and believed to be his first completed work, predating Other Voices, Other Rooms) is a testament to this talent of his. Much of the prose here is simply astonishing: the rhythm is perfect; the descriptions deftly, almost impressionistically delivered, yet pinpointedly exact; the whole thing hums with the kind of jazzy lyricism one never hoped to read outside of early Fitzgerald. Here, for instance, is Capote's description of a visit to the Zoo:

The cat house of a zoo has an ornery smell, an air prowled by sleep, mangy with old breath and dead desires. Comedy in a doleful key is the blowsy she-lion reclining in her cell like a movie queen of silent fame; and a hulking ludicrous sight her mate presents winking at the audience as if he could use a pair of bifocals. Somehow the leopard does not suffer; nor the panther: their swagger makes distinct claims upon the pulse, for not even the indignities of confinement can belittle the danger of their Asian eyes, thos gold and ginger flowers blooming with a bristling courage in the dusk of captivity. At feeding time a cat house turns into a thunderous jungle, for the attendant, passing with blood-dyed hands among the cages, is sometimes slow, and his wards, jealous of one who has been fed first, scream down the roof, rattle the steel with roars of longing.

And this is just a throwaway passage somewhere in the middle, by no means an important part of the book.

It's a pity, therefore, that the accomplished tone of the novel isn't matched by either the plot or the characters. Summer Crossing is the story of Grady McNeil, a self-confident but ultimately immature seventeen year old, daughter of a rich Upper East Side family, who chooses to stay behind one summer while her parents go on a trip to Europe because she's fallen madly in love (in true fairy tale fashion) with Clyde Manzer, a parking lot attendant. This starting premise itself seems odd – what sort of uber-rich family leaves its seventeen year old daughter all by herself (without hired help, or supervision of any kind) for an entire summer? But logic is clearly not a strong suit of this novel. At any rate, the uncouth but oh so dashing Clyde is duly sneaked into the apartment, and the couple settle in to enjoy their privacy and freedom, though each knows that their affair cannot last and the spectre of this hangs over them. Heartbreak and bewilderment is, of course, right around the corner.

The trouble with all this is that it comes across mostly as caricature. Manzer's character is almost entirely unconvincing – Capote tries to drum up some sympathy for him by giving us some hackneyed back story about how he's some kind of undiscovered baseball great, etc. but on the whole he (Capote) seems to possess absolutely no insight into the character, and Manzer rarely rises above the merely symbolic. Capote's intuitions about Grady are better, but even they fail to add up to anything resembling a real person. Comparisons with Holly Golightly are inevitable, I suppose, but almost completely wrong. If anything Grady is the antithesis of Holly. Holly is the epitome of elfin ingenuity – an ethereal, magical creature, whose laughing vividness successfully masks the true desperation of her small-town origins and her uncertain fate. Grady on the other hand, is a spoilt princess, who likes to think of herself as capable and sophisticated, but is really little more than a confused child – a fact that is obvious to everyone but herself.

Overall, the story of Summer Crossing is predictable, melodramatic and a little hard to take seriously. The good parts of the story are the tangents – the two to three page flashbacks or the character of Peter Bell, Grady's childhood friend. Peter is a charming, witty, young man, hopelessly in love with Grady, but masking his longing beneath a veneer of easy cameraderie. If there is a character in this novel that shows us the way to Holly Golightly it is Peter Bell, and he is easily the most convincing character in the book.

If the book works despite its weak plot, it's because many of the qualities that we will come to love about Capote's later work are already present here. It's not just that the writing is exquisite. It's also that Capote is so charming that he can make us lower our defenses, make us forget that underneath all that urban sophistication is a core of cold-hearted violence. Capote is capable of being entirely ruthless, capable of throwing a punch every bit as sudden and muscular as anything Hemingway could dish out. And because he manages to lure you into a false sense of security, the blow, when it comes, is a sock straight to the jaw. That effect is even more pronounced in Summer Crossing – in part because this is a really short novel (about 120 pages of fairly spaced-out text) so that the pacing is rapid to the point of abruptness, and major plot developments can take up little more than a single paragraph, and partly because the writing is still not quite as polished as Capote's writing will become, so that the roughness is more apparent.

Bottomline: Summer Crossing is like a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne. It sparkles like the real thing, even manages to taste a bit like it, but it doesn't pack the kick that real champagne does. Still, it's a fascinating work by someone who, though he isn't quite a novelist yet, is already one of the finest writers of his time. A delightful, delightful read.