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Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel

by Truman Capote

In Advertisements for Myself Norman Mailer writes of Truman Capote: "I would suspect he hesitates between the attractions of Society which enjoys and so repays him for his unique gifts, and the novel he would write of the gossip column's real life, a major work, but it would banish him forever from his favorite world."

Random House
(now available through Vintage Books)
180 pages
1987

Excerpt:
"'Here' — she nudged the flowered crystal toward me — 'drop that in your pocket. Keep it as a reminder that to be durable and perfect, to be in fact grown-up, is to be an object, an altar, the figure in a stained-glass window: cherishable stuff. But really, it is so much better to sneeze and feel human.'"

If only Truman had listened.

In January 1966 — so Joseph M. Fox tells us in an "Editor's Note" to this book — Truman Capote was given a $25,000 advance to deliver a novel called Answered Prayers to Random House by January 1968. It would, Fox tells us, "examine the small world of the very rich" and would, Truman declared, be the American equivalent of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Bold words for a writer known for small, intimate pieces rather than large sprawling novels. Perhaps too bold. The due date was pushed back again and again: to January 1973, September 1977, then March 1981. Worse, when an excerpt from the novel, "La Cote Basque," was published in Esquire in 1975, it, "produced an explosion which rocked that small society which Truman set out to describe," Fox writes. "Virtually every friend he had in this world ostracized him for telling thinly disguised stories out of school, and many of them never spoke to him again." Subsequently, Truman went through a writer's crisis where he disowned everything he had written and attempted a newer, clearer style. It received mix reviews when it was displayed in Music for Chameleons.

Truman died in 1984 and the novel-in-progress, the American Remembrance of Things Past, was discovered to be three disjointed chapters totaling less than 200 pages. These were published in 1987 under the title Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel.

And? Definitely unfinished. But the first chapter, "Unspoiled Monsters," is brilliant. P.B. Jones, an opportunist, holes up in a New York City YMCA where he writes his memoirs: from southern orphan to Florida masseur to New York City writer to American expatriate living in Europe — plus all the bed-hopping with gay magazine editors and rich dames that allowed for this increasingly expensive lifestyle. The parade of people he encounters are both real and, apparently, thinly-veiled fictions, and neither group is exempt from Jones' (or Capote's) acid pen. He calls Gertrude Stein "a big-bellied show-off." He writes: "Walleyed, pipe-sucking, pasty-hued Sartre and his spinsterish moll, De Beauvoir, were usually propped in the corner like an abandoned pair of ventriloquist's dolls." The fictional characters get it worse. Of the beautiful Kate McCloud, Jones writes, "Christ, if Kate had as many pricks sticking out of her as she's had stuck in her, she'd look like a porcupine." Sometimes it's funny but it's usually just bitchy.

Jones the character is obviously an opportunist, but we sense in Jones the narrator someone more melancholy. Middle-aged, but still prostituting himself (literally), he has recently been in and out of love, and he meets the girl who ruins him in the second chapter, "Kate McCloud," a shorter and less inspired chapter than the first. The final chapter, "La Cote Basque," which would have been the seventh (but not final) chapter if everything had been written, is a long lunch between Lady Ina Coolbirth and Jones at an exclusive New York restaurant. They gossip about everything from J.D. Salinger to Jackie Kennedy (of whom Jones says, "...that is how she always struck me — not as a bona fide woman, but as an artful female impersonator..."), and from murder to infidelity. Again, it's all very bitchy, but hardly a chapter to lose your friends — and your career — over.

For most of the first chapter, Answered Prayers feels like a legitimate story — we have a sense of moving towards a certain direction, and certain themes; but eventually it begins to read simply as the artful compiling of many conversations Capote had over the decades with both the famous and not-so-famous. Maybe it read this way to Truman, too. Maybe that was the problem.

But the better the book the sadder it is. Capote himself writes his own unintentional epigraph in the first chapter. A friend asks Jones if he's writing a novel and Jones responds, "A report. An account. Yes, I'll call it a novel. If I ever finish it. Of course, I never do finish anything."

—December 24, 2002

© 2002 by Erik Lundegaard