Capote for Christmas

It's best to put one thing in plain view right here at the outset: I am a big Truman Capote fan, and have been since I was 11 years old.

I couldn't have told you back then just why I so admired Capote's work, and I don't know that I am much better able to articulate it now. I have avoided, when I could, settings where "serious" examinations of literature might be made, and so whatever hifalutin jargon I picked up along the way I have done my best to forget. But I burned through "In Cold Blood" back when it was new, and I have reread it and much of Capote's other output several times since.

I came upon "A Christmas Memory" fairly late in the game, about a decade ago, when I spotted the thin volume on the shelf of a secondhand bookstore, where I read it about halfway through (that took maybe 20 minutes) before I made my purchase. It now resides in our glass-fronted case, where the special books are kept. It is taken out every year around this time and read aloud.

The story, which first appeared in Mademoiselle magazine in 1956, is a semiautobiographical tale of the Christmas season in the first-person narrator's seventh year, early in the Depression. Capote, the product of a brief marriage between a salesman and a teenage beauty queen, was foisted off on distant relatives and spent his early years, before his mother remarried, in tiny Monroeville, Ala., where he and his somewhat daft elderly cousin Miss Sook Faulk became closest confidantes.

"Other people inhabit the house, relatives;" Capote tells in the third paragraph, "and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them."

What follows, over the course of 34 pages of widely spaced type, is the story of the friends' preparations for Christmas-the fundraising for and the making of 31 fruitcakes to mail to people they scarcely know, if they know them at all, and the harvesting of the Christmas tree and other household greenery from the woods far across the cold-running creeks.

While the story is certainly informed by Capote's own experience, it is a work of fiction, and Capote (who in his later years earned a reputation as something of a fabulist) never, to my knowledge, suggested it was anything but. The emotion, however, rings absolutely true. Anyone whose childhood, through whatever set of circumstances insensitive adults sent his way, might have been lost if not for a close relationship with an elderly person, will find a piece of himself in Capote's little tale, and will likely shed a tear when the inevitable comes around.

The early 1930s weren't such distant times when "A Christmas Memory" was written. But now, nearly half a century on, the story is a glimpse into a way of life that exists only in the memories of old people. It was a time when all but the inhabitants of the largest cities lived much closer to the land, when people rarely ventured more than a few miles from home, when a dollar was big money. It was a time when people made their own Christmas ornaments and were visited once or twice a year by itinerant knife-grinders and fashioned gifts from whatever was available for little or no money.

It's unfortunate that "This American Life," the popular public radio program, chose to feature an abbreviated reading of "A Christmas Memory" last week. For the story, in its original form, is so lean that cutting can only remove muscle. The butchers left in the allusions, near the end, to the "Baptist win-dow" and the $50,000 name-the-new-coffee-brand contest, but they excised those references from earlier in the story, so the poor listener is left to won-der just what they hell the narrator (Capote himself, recorded in 1959) is talking about. My advice to anyone tempted to edit Capote is to go get drunk instead, try to sleep it off, and then see how things look in the morning.

An 11-year-old may not take away from Capote all that he offers, but at least he can read him. It's a plain style, peppered with two- and three- and four-word sentences, one that prefers the 5-cent word over its higher-priced cousin. It's a style that, a decade after "A Christmas Memory," would make for the finest telling of a true-crime story you'll ever come across.

And it's a style that doesn't get in the way of the idea behind the story. In the case of the skinny book, the idea is pure, innocent love, the one thing every person had better get a taste of early on. "A Christmas Memory" is a lovely reminder of that.

Tony Brouner is editor of Beacon Hill News & South District Journal.

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