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168 Western American Literature Music for Chameleons. By Truman Capote. (New York: Random House, 1980. 262 pages, $10.95.) In Advertisements for Myself (1959), Norman Mailer says of Truman Capote: “He is the most perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm.” Unfortunately, we find in Music for Chameleons, Capote’s latest collection of mostly “non-fiction” prose, not only a writer who falls short of Proust and Tolstoy — with whom he has sometimes compared himself — but also one who bears little resem­ blance to the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In the past two decades a once-fastidious artist has become too frequently maudlin, garish and selfreflexive . And yet, Music for Chameleons contains a few pieces which suggest that if Capote’s talent has not grown as much as he would like for us to believe, it has not totally disappeared either. Among those pieces are a short story called “Mojave” and a non-fiction narrative called “Handcarved Coffins,” both of which deal in large part with the American West. The major characters in “Mojave” are George and Sarah Whitelaw, a wealthy Manhattan couple who love each other but who are sexually estranged because of Sarah’s traumatic reaction to her second pregnancy. As she and her husband stay home one night, drinking pepper-flavored vodka, George tells of an experience which he presumably had as a youth hitchhiking in the desert. There, he met a well-dressed old blind man named George Schmidt. Schmidt had been left out on the road by his new wife, an ex-stripper named Ivory Hunter, and her young Mexican boyfriend. As the details of Schmidt’s life with Ivory emerge, we hear a familiar California story. Retirees living in a trailer court and belonging to the fundamentalist Church of God, Schmidt and Ivory are Nathanael West grotesques. And their plight becomes a kind of stark, comic paradigm for what has happened to the Whitelaws. As George tells Sarah: “We all, sometimes, leave each other out there under the skies, and we never understand why.” “Handcarved Coffins,” which might have been entitled Son of In Cold Blood, concerns a series of baroque murders in an unnamed western state. (Without the western mass-murderer, where would the non-fiction novel be?) Prior to knocking off his victims, the killer sends each a miniature handcarved coffin containing that victim’s photograph. And the murders themselves — involving amphetamine-crazed rattlesnakes and decapitation by a metal wire stretched across an isolated road — are so grisly as to make the crimes of Hickock and Smith seem commonplace by comparison. What makes this narrative peculiarly western, however, is not its ele­ ment of gothic melodrama — which is at least as appropriate to Capote’s native South — but rather the motivation of the probable killer. Robert Hawley Quinn, local owner of a large ranch, is suspected of the murders by Capote’s detective friend Jake Pepper. Each of the victims belonged to a Reviews 169 civic committee which voted to divert part of a nearby river from Quinn’s ranch. Here, water becomes the focus of a struggle for power, just as it does in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Indeed, Quinn himself possesses something of the amoral charm of Noah Cross. Although we do not ordinarily think of him as a regionalist, Truman Capote is one of a number of eastern writers who has found in the West both a literal and a metaphorical setting for some of his better work. MARK ROYDEN WINCHELL University of Southern Mississippi Big Sioux Pioneers. Edited by Arthur R. Huseboe. (Sioux Falls, SD: Nordland Heritage Foundation, 1980. 88 pages, $3.00.) Interest in ethnic background spawns the organization of heritage foun­ dations, and they, in turn, emphasize local histories. Many references to very specific locations and surnames, recognizable to members of the Nordland Heritage Foundation, are made in Big Sioux Pioneers: Essays about the Settlement of the Dakota Frontier. This collection, therefore, appears to be another compilation of endemic topics. It is that, yet more. Detailing marks the collection. Readers of western American literature will find most of these essays quite edifying, because O. E...


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pp. 168-169
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