I have meant to read this book for some time. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that seeing the Capote film is what finally induced me to read it, but I suppose that must be true. I had seen the film the previous weekend, bought this book during the following week, and just this past weekend, devoured it in all of two days.
Capote's masterpiece tells the story of the senseless, brutal killing of a rural Kansas family in 1959. It is beautifully written from start to finish -- in an understated way. If you come into this experience, as I did, conscious of the narcissism of the author, you might be surprised at the writing style. It is very humble, no Joycean or Nabokovian literary showing off. The story is paramount; the author does an amazing job of staying invisible, and respecting that story.
Respect is the feeling that is conveyed throughout the book. The telling is very respectful of the Clutter family; you learn of what remarkable people they were, even as they met their ends. The author is also fundamentally respectful of the people of the town, and of the local law enforcement. The book is not without its implied questioning of the judicial process, but again, I greatly appreciated the empathy and respect that pervaded the book.
This fundamental respect for human dignity even, in a more disturbing way, pervades even the discussion of the lives of the killers. The author candidly relates the biographies of these two men. On one level, this conveys an understanding of how they came to be what they were, but on a deeper level, it's all still a mystery. Left unanswered, still, is what really causes a man to be a killer. There is a great sense of tragedy throughout the relating of their formative lives -- perhaps not a respect for who they eventually were, but a respect for who they *could* have been.
Extremely unsettling is the sheer randomness of it all. The chain of events that causes the Clutter family to be killed is so random, so out-of-the-blue. Capote conveys how thin is the line between everything all seeming well and orderly in the world, and disaster striking out of nowhere.
Also coming through very clearly in this book is a cultural moment in time. You read it, feeling that this rural Kansas society is a vanished world. It's a stoic, God-fearing community, but the urban Capote betrays little condescension toward it. Quite the opposite; he seems duly impressed that the only reaction from the crowd to the killers' transference back to the town is one of silence -- no attempted violence, no shouted insults. The restraint and dignity of the townspeople amid this tragedy seems foreign to modern eyes. I found myself liking these people very much, despite my own preference for urban living.
But nothing undoes the basic feeling of tragedy that pervades the book. The author sifts through an incredible amount of detail about the crime; information that could only have been gleaned with a tremendous amount of cooperation from the killers themselves. There are details here that we could never have known about unless both killers had related them in their own separate interviews: details both of the crime itself, and of their activities, and further crimes and near-crimes, when on the lam.
The final portrait is of two worlds colliding -- a dysfunctional, violent world amid the undercurrents of society, rising up to strike the normal, orderly world of the Clutter family. It leaves the reader feeling as though nothing can be truly safe in our world, as long as the mysteries behind this story remain unresolved.