How Gordon Lish’s first novel anticipated The Jinx.
From the paperback cover of Dear Mr. Capote.
Like every other sentient being with an HBO subscription, I’ve been riveted by the layers of mendacity, hypocrisy, voyeurism, manipulation, deception, dysfunction, and psychopathology on display in The Jinx. Robert Durst is as compelling a creep as has ever appeared on an LED screen; he seems like a character sprung from Patricia Highsmith’s dark imagination. (The Talented Mister Durst?) Andrew Jarecki, with his distinctly Mephistophelean facial hair, gives off his own aroma of brimstone. As I watched the series—rapt, but with a queasy feeling of complicity—I felt I’d encountered something like this before. Then I remembered what it was: Gordon Lish’s skilled, twisted, and exceptionally prophetic first novel, Dear Mr. Capote (1983).
The self-proclaimed “Captain Fiction,” Lish is most famous and/or notorious today for his writing classes, which more resembled EST sessions than workshops, and his hyperactive editorial pencil—which, depending on your point of view, either butchered or rescued much of Raymond Carver’s fiction. By 1983, Lish was riding high as an editor at Knopf, but through most of the seventies he’d been the fiction editor of Esquire, where he had almost single-handedly engineered a sea change in the style and substance of American short fiction, publishing the work of such minimalists as Carver, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, and Amy Hempel. Lish also convinced Truman Capote to publish the first two installments in his long bruited-about novel-in-progress, Answered Prayers. Capote had bragged that it would be his American answer to Proust, and the first of the chapters to appear, in June 1975, “Mojave,” received rapturous praise. Buoyed by this response, he gave Esquire another chapter to publish later that year, the incendiary and staggeringly impolitic “La Cote Basque, 1965,” which spilled a dump truck’s worth of dirt on his high-society friends and exiled him from the fancy circles and acquaintances he had so assiduously cultivated. Its publication sent Capote’s career into a terminal tailspin, perhaps the most disastrous miscalculation by a major writer in our literary history. Lish, too, has his Mephistophelian side.
To those in the know—a much smaller population in those pre-Internet days—it was more than a little provocative for Lish to publish a novel with the title Dear Mr. Capote. But so was the novel itself, which takes the form of a book-length letter from a serial killer to the author of the most famed true-crime book of all time, In Cold Blood, inviting Capote to tell his story in like fashion. The narrator, Dave, a former child radio-actor and now a payroll clerk in a New York bank, has dispatched twenty-three women with a long jagged knife he calls “Paki”; his ultimate goal is to kill forty-seven women, one for each year of his life. His method is both chilling and oddly literary: He stalks his victim and, at just the right moment, speaks a word from his word-a-day calendar—paraldehyde or capstone or camisole or cellulose or scintilla. This confuses the woman just long enough for Dave to plunge the knife into her eye, an act he describes in sickeningly casual detail, not neglecting the click of the knife when it hits a contact lens.
Dear Mr. Capote is a nervy, high-wire act that some found in poor taste (which was certainly a good part of the point). Remember that another homicidal letter-writer, David Berkowitz, the famed Son of Sam, had terrorized New York City just a few years before, and had famously contacted the big-city columnist Jimmy Breslin about his exploits. In Dear Mr. Capote, Dave informs his correspondent that the first person he’d tried to enlist was Norman Mailer, but Mailer had declined the invitation. Mailer and murder were closely associated. He came close to murdering his wife Adele Morales with a pen knife at a drunken party, and perhaps his greatest book was The Executioner’s Song, an epic account of the life and execution of the murderer Gary Gilmore; he also corresponded with the convicted murderer and aspiring litterateur Jack Abbott, who was later released and, in 1982, murdered a waiter in an East Village restaurant. This tabloid-ready association between writers and killers provided insistent background music to Lish’s provocation.
But another, even larger risk Lish took in Dear Mr. Capote was to render his serial killer’s narration so disjointedly, in language so flat and cliché-ridden, that the book is utterly devoid of reading pleasure, conventional or otherwise. It’s as if Lish set out to give the lie to Humbert Humbert’s famous assertion, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Dead phrases march across the page with relentless frequency: “Am I right or am I right?” “The facts are the facts.” “Just between you, me and the lamppost.” “Enough said.” “Let’s not kid ourselves.” Against Dave’s cracked, often horrific story, the banality of the language creates a sense of airlessness. It really is like being trapped in a room with a loquacious madman, a spiritual dead-zone of delusion and affectless violence disguised by empty euphemism. It’s hard for me to think of a genuinely literary novel at once so mimetically effective and yet so maddeningly (sic) lacking in reading enjoyment. Dave is an all-American version of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man—a sick man, a spiteful man, a man marinated in the dreary commonplaces and stale humor and faux folksiness of the Rotary Club and the salesman’s patter and Reader’s Digest.
Dear Mr. Capote’s narrative arc eventually proceeds through pathos, as Dave’s backstory of neglect and sexual abuse unfolds, and ends with mental disassociation, indicated by the final breakdown of clarity and syntax. In her blurb for the book, Cynthia Ozick praises its “fresh voice,” asking, “Who else has shaped the shapelessness of madness with such horrific artistry?” Point taken, but the sense of a mimetic fallacy at work will haunt some readers.
But back to Robert Durst. He may be a murderer, and he’s most certainly a sociopath, but he seems far too shrewd and calculating to be truly mad. Still, he and Dave share more than a few characteristics beyond their bedrock exhibitionism. They both exhibit a total lack of remorse and an inability to experience empathy. And when Dave tells Capote, “So okay, I left out a thing here and a thing there when I wrote to you-know-who,” it’s impossible not to hear the echo of Durst’s now famous rhetorical assertion: “Nobody tells the whole truth.”
In the years since Dear Mr. Capote was published, the media-industrial complex has devised ever more effective ways to monetize murder. Such skillfully written serial-killer novels as American Psycho, Perfume, The Debt to Pleasure, and especially The Silence of the Lambs have lent the genre a new patina of glamour and respectability. In nonfiction, true crime was once regarded as a déclassé genre, fit for mass-market paperbacks and the lower orders. That’s changed, particularly after the watershed moment in the O. J. Simpson debacle, which unleashed a flood of books by seemingly everyone involved except Kato Kaelin. (Let’s not forget that the host of Kardashians now afflicting the culture sprung from the loins of the “dream team” lawyer Robert Kardashian.)
These books sold in enormous numbers. Among them was one of the strangest artifacts in the history of the written (or, more precisely, fabricated) word: O. J. Simpson’s subjunctive sort-of confession, If I Did It. That oddity would never have come into being without the fierce efforts of its publisher, Judith Regan, one of the shrewdest and most commercially effective publishers of recent times. The resulting firestorm helped to sink her eponymous imprint at HarperCollins, but she’s back in the game now, with her new imprint, Regan Arts, poised to launch its first list. It is a dead certainty that the Durst affair is going to spawn numerous book proposals; they’ll begin to hit editors’ desks in, oh, about a week to ten days. You can be sure that Judith Regan will be on the hunt—I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s setting her sights on the biggest get of them all, Durst himself. She should consider using Gordon Lish as his ghostwriter. Who better?
Am I right or am I right?
Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York City.
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