By: Marianne M. Moates
Reviewed by: Norman McMillan
Fire Ant Books/The University of Alabama Press, 2008
Happily back in print is a charming book that many of us found essential in understanding the young Truman Capote. The new version is re-titled Truman Capote’s Southern Years: Stories from a Monroeville Cousin, thereby emphasizing the essential role played by Capote’s cousin, Jennings Faulk Carter, who was the source of the wonderful stories that Moates recounts in the book. The book also sports a new cover photo of Capote holding Queenie, the dog owned by Capote’s soul-mate Sook, a picture that suggests better than the one on the 1989 book the Monroeville world of his childhood and adolescence, when Truman lived in his elderly cousins’ home or returned to Alabama on summer visits.
Reading Moates’ book, one can’t help but subscribe to Wordsworth’s notion that “the child is father of the man.” Moates herself says in her introduction, “A full understanding of the man and his work was centered in his childhood—those precious formative years that bend the twig.” Three examples in these stories must suffice: We see a young impresario and entertainer who intends to be the center of attraction as he plans a Halloween party that causes quite a stir locally. This prefigures his Black and White Ball of 1966, which caused an international stir. His desire for revenge, which manifested itself in his sending hit-men to California to inflict bodily damage on a lover who had displeased him, is seen in his adolescent disruption of the wedding of a fellow named Ham, who a year earlier had given Capote a beating for filming his sister Missy doing the hootchy-kootchy in the nude. And his physical strength, demonstrated so famously when he beat Humphrey Bogart at arm-wrestling, is foreshadowed by his heroic rescue of Edison McMillan, a young black man who almost drowned at Hatter’s Mill.
The book also gives us some very important profiles of Capote’s parents, Lillie Mae (later Nina) and Arch, and we learn that Capote inherited from them many of his own characteristics. Lillie Mae’s love of showing off and acting out became central to Capote’s future life, as did Arch’s flamboyant and promiscuous nature. Both parents were exceedingly self-centered, as Capote was so often charged with being in his adult life.
Moates, starting with Jennings Faulk Carter’s tape-recorded stories, has transmuted the slackness of oral story telling into marvelous, tight, finely-written narratives. In so doing, she provides insights into Capote not found in any other book. March 2009
Norman McMillan, 2008 recipient of the Eugene Current-Garcia Award, is the author of Distant Son: An Alabama Boyhood and of the plays, Truman Capote: Against a Copper Sky and Ashes of Roses, based on stories of Mary Ward Brown.