Many might believe Truman Capote’s landmark 1965 book In Cold Blood places the murder of a mid-Western American family at its center.
But Capote’s watershed novel of New Journalism — blending the tropes of fiction with nonfictional reporting — is as concerned with the gruesome killings as it is with the intimate if strange bond between the two murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith.
In Cold Blood begins memorably with the soft sound of winds sweeping over crops in Western Kansas. Farmer Herbert Clutter sets out for his day’s work on the family farm while his children begin their daily chores as an eerie calmness takes over the isolated property.
“Like the waters of the river… like the yellow trains streaking down the Sante Fe tracks, drama in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped here,” Capote writes. Capote’s early insistence on the ordinariness and banality of this obscure Kansas town where the Clutter farm lies indicates its importance in the looming slayings that rock the town of Holcomb Kansas forever.
Capote exploits these novelistic elements in the opening pages of In Cold Blood to offer a deceptive way of “reading” his book. Capote’s intention was about breaking conventions about journalism, reporting, and challenging the traditional modes of storytelling.
We readers are lead to believe that this all will be a straight story of the murder of a seemingly ordinary all-American family. And yet the early appearance of the two men who orchestrate the killings — Dick and Perry — tells us that their respective (and collective) stories is what Capote wants to really explore.
Like Capote’s other books, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), a gay male is (passively) present — more often than not, a stand-in for the author himself. It was if Capote enjoyed placing himself in his works; it afforded him a closer intimacy to his subjects as well as giving a mouthpiece to the queer male, someone so often stigmatised and shamed by society or badly portrayed only in pulp novels given out in brown paper bags.
In an age when sodomy laws were enforced across America and homosexuality was considered a perverse mental illness, Capote used his stories (in part) to give a voice to gay men. Whether it was about accepting one’s burgeoning homosexuality, as the pre-teen protagonist does in Other Voices, or perhaps acting as the loyal and non-sexual “brotherly” confidante to the self-destructive and wayward impulses of the young “geisha” Holly Golightly in Tiffany’s, Capote’s writing was an important intervention into the American literary canon of male homosexuality.
Capote’s insistence in representing the story and “voices” of queer characters was a significant achievement in an otherwise un-mentionable age of homosexuality. Fifty years later, and re-reading In Cold Blood in our age of gay marriage and queer theory, it is hard not to detect the emotional and erotic tensions between Dick and Perry beyond the novel’s early telling of the gruesome killings.
Even before the capital crime takes place, Capote creates important and deliberate contrasts between the two “couples” at the centre of the story. Capote encourages us to be just as invested in the Clutters’ backstory as in our killers’. We hear about Herb Clutter and his marriage to wife ghostly Bonnie, who has been debilitated by clinical depression since the birth of her children. She is a ghostly and almost absent figure. In some ways, Capote takes a fondness to exploring more of Bonnie’s backstory because of the way she feels estranged from the daily life of a housewife in Midwest America. She is on the fringe on the “American Dream” just before it is completely taken away from her and her family.
The bond between Dick and Perry is shown to be a more intimate and deeper one. Both men are ex-convicts on parole. After a former inmate offered Dick details of a former farmer’s family fortune stored in their farmhouse, Dick recruits friend Perry to accompany him to burgalise the family. As Capote sketches the two men early on, the language shared between the pair is endearing, if slightly ironic. Dick repeatedly calls Perry “honey.” Perry is attracted to Dick’s clean-cut machismo, his “totally masculine” image. It is not only Dick’s slightly apathetic and coarse manner that makes Perry gravitate to his companion, but also his physique. Dick was in a car accident before meeting Perry and since the crash his face is “off centre.” Perry still tells Dick “you have a wonderful smile” as when Dick smirks his face realigns to a more symmetrical angle.
While some may be drawn to the novel’s blending of the dictums of fiction with the eye of the journalist, others (like myself) are intrigued by Capote’s insistence in showing the homoerotic tension between the two men. Did Perry commit the crime too because he wanted to share a gruesome but ultimately connective bond with Dick? Was Dick aware of Perry’s erotic attraction and emotional dependence to his more effeminate and passive partner? It would seem that these are many questions raised by Capote and his long and extensive profiling of Dick and Perry — the real protagonists of In Cold Blood — offers the story of the pains of being “queer” (if only Perry is), disenfranchised, and criminals in America. Their crime could almost be read as a hatred of the way American society has been so cruel to them.
One of the most chilling moments in the book is when Perry realises that Dick decided on the Clutter house to rob because not only does he want to score the loot but rape the farmer’s daughter. Since the pair will be killing anyone who witnesses their crime, Dick justifies this act by saying that he would have killed her anyway. The rape is a brutal and unforgiveable transgression for Perry and is a sign of complete disloyalty, a sort of symbolic adultery, and shows Dick’s more sinister and violent personality.
What In Cold Blood gives us today is also a rather unique account into gay male life in 1950s America. Since Capote was a queer-identified writer, the book is enriched by his eye for understanding the dynamics of gender presentation of gay men in 1950s America. At the time, there was really only one type of gay male — the “fairy,” the “queen,” the “queer”. These were men whose gender presentation was effeminate if a little camp and gestural. In the book, Perry fits this figure because of the way his behaviour would have registered — singing and playing guitar, writing poetry, hoarding maps and magazines — would be configured as a feminine traits. Dick’s mother recognises Perry’s queer tendencies and tells Dick early on that he is not welcome back in their house.
“Some queers I’ve really liked. As long as they didn’t try anything. The most worthwhile friend I ever had… turned out to be queer,” Perry tells Capote. Queer bonds are what really pepper the book. Capote to the two men. What journalist would get so close to these two convicted killers? The bond between killers Dick and Perry. The relationships Dick and Perry forget with others in prison. In Cold Blood is about the importance of untraditional but powerful kinships that fall outside the heterosexual all-American family unity. In our age of queer theory, marriage equality movements, and gay pride events, thinking back to representation of gayness in the time of the closet can offer meaningful and important readings. In Cold Blood is only one case in point. Decades later, we see how authors like Capote used subtextual tactics to resist the negative portray of homosexuality and breath some humanity into people — in this instance, despite their crimes — to show how otherwise displaced people still tried to make their way towards the American Dream, and often, met their own ending because of it.
Nathan Smith is a graduate student at the University of Melbourne Australia, specializing in queer and gender studies. His work has been published in Salon, The Advocate, and Out. He can be found tweeting @nathansmithr.