Summer Book Club: Steve’s musings on Part 2, and Emily’s responses to them

Steve sent me his thoughts on Part 2, and since they’re somewhat broken into various topics, I thought I’d just respond throughout the post, rather than write a separate post of my own. I’ll denote my responses by writing them in blue text.

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Last year I had students write a handful of narrative essays. They had to write about a place from their childhood, a time they weren’t proud of themselves, a person who turned out to be different than their original perception of them, and others.  We would spend days just searching our brains for details and information that we could include in the writing. One of the questions that came up most frequently was, “What if I can’t remember exactly what I said?” And I would tell them just to make it up. If you can remember exactly, great. If not, it’s not like anyone is going to know that you made it up. Just make it sound realistic.

This has to do with what Emily wrote about last week, about how much of this book is actually the truth.  And I have to agree with her that every line in the book could be derived from an interview or research.  My first impression was that Capote (and Harper Lee) spent about a week in Holcomb interviewing people then hightailed it out of that godforsaken place and got down to writing.  But Part II makes me think differently. Especially when the people of Holcomb are sitting around diners talking about the Clutter murders. I get the feeling that Capote and Lee are tucked away at a booth in the diner, watching and scribbling notes and the locals just go about their business.  There are some exchanges that I wonder if those are the exact words that were said, but according to Wikipedia Capote took 8,000 pages worth of notes.  So maybe those quick exchanges between the town sheriff and the diner waitress really are word for word.

There must be some source that explains the Capote’s process of writing In Cold Blood. (Personally, I can’t wait to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the whole thing in Capote — even though, this too is far from a documentary and may only mislead me further). I’ve been resisting finding such a source, though, for fear that it would ruin the book for me somehow. For now, I think I’m happy to “enjoy” (as much as you can enjoy a story about a mass murder) Capote’s telling, and wait to explore the “truth” of it afterwards.

In Part II, we get a lot of info about Perry and Dick, who have escaped to Mexico.  Capote pulls some great sources to help us understand Perry more fully: a letter from his father to the parole board and a letter from Perry’s sister to him while he was in jail.  And then we get Perry remembering his traumatic childhood and years in the armed forces.  It actually made me much more sympathetic towards Perry. But Capote has this way of dropping in a single sentence that jolts you out of the trances he puts you in for pages at a time.  Just when I was starting to feel for Perry, Capote drops in a tiny detail, right after his sister’s letter, where Perry tells us that he wishes his sister would have been in the Clutter home “that night”.  Come on, Perry! It’s hard enough to like him without comments like that. Every time he and Dick stop for a picnic or Perry complains about not having his guitar I get angry with them. You just killed 4 people and you’re picnicking? It’s a whole lot of arrogance.

It’s interesting that you call their nonchalance “arrogance.” For Dick, maybe it is arrogance, but for Perry, I don’t get that sense at all. Perry has a weird air of innocence about him. He has such a need for approval, both from Dick and from his prison mentor, Willie-Jay. We see this when he lies to Dick about killing the man in Vegas (if this is true, were the Clutters Perry’s first murder? Did I miss something along the way?), and how he agrees to anything Dick suggests, just to have a companion to accompany him to Mexico. We also see it in his near affection and admiration for Willie-Jay; I mean, he keeps the terrible letter from his sister for the sole fact that Willie-Jay wrote a “super-intelligent” and “very sensitive” response to it. In Part 1, we learned that Perry initially went along with Dick’s plan just because it would coincide with Willie-Jay’s release from prison.

The other part of this is that Perry is such a dreamer. He has all sorts of fantastic plans for treasure hunting in Mexico, plans that make him sound like a 5-year-old kid. And he doesn’t see that Dick is just leading him on to get what he wants. For me, it’s almost frustrating how naive he is, although I think a lot of it has to do with his less-than-picturesque upbringing. It’s like he has no concept of the fact that he just murdered a whole family. It doesn’t even cross his mind, for the most part. A glaring example of this is in the last scene of Part 2, when they are trying to snag a ride on the side of the highway, and Perry bursts into “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”, utterly unironically. The murders don’t seem to have affected him at all. So should we feel sorry for Perry? I don’t think so. But I also don’t see him as arrogant either. 

I frequently thought when I was reading Part II, when are we going to see the night of the murder? When will Capote take us inside the Clutter house when Dick and Perry were tying everyone up? I know it’s morbid but that’s what I really want to see. I don’t feel that bad about it because I’m pretty sure that’s what 90% of the people who get this book are eager to read about as well.  I do like hearing about all the possible theories the investigators have come up with and the town’s reaction and the murderer’s escapades down in Mexico, but everyone knows the big draw to this book is the quadruple murder.  I’m assuming that once Perry and Dick get caught, Perry will spill the beans.  Also, the lead investigator, Dewey, keeps going back to this theory that the Clutters had to have known the murderers. He’s mentioned it a couple times. I really want to see how that all went down. And if that night never shows up in the book, I am going to be super pissed.

Obviously, I want to see this too. It’s like how we all crane our necks to see the horrific accident on the other side of the highway — we just have to know. I’m hoping, like you, that Perry will eventually tell us what happened, but I’m not fully convinced that he will. For some reason, I get the sense that the actual murders are not what interests Capote. Part 1 was all lead up. Part 2 was all aftermath. Perhaps Part 3 (titled: Answer) will give us the scene, but I’m not holding out too much hope. I do want to know why though. Why the Clutters? What is Dick’s connection to them? Like you said, we’ve heard the KBI’s theory that the killers must have known the Clutters, and Dewey even says late in this section that “Attendant upon these beliefs [his most likely theories] was his conviction that the family had known very well the persons who destroyed them.” Devey’s conviction. I don’t get the sense that Dewey is the kind of guy to make convictions often. He’s been very hesitant to release any information or theories to the media. He doesn’t jump to conclusions. If Dewey is convinced the murderers knew the Clutters very well, I feel compelled to believe him. But how??

I felt this Part dragged a bit more than the first Part. I found myself wanting to be back in Holcomb every time we were off following the antics of Dick and Perry. Maybe part of this has to do with my need to know what happened there, but also I’m struggling to know what to think about Perry, and would rather just not think about him. Like I said before, his complications frustrate me. Hopefully Part 3 will resolve this for me a bit.

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2 thoughts on “Summer Book Club: Steve’s musings on Part 2, and Emily’s responses to them

  1. I’m sticking with “arrogant”. He definitely does seek approval from certain people but there’s a lot more people that he dismisses. He thinks he’s smarter than average. He’s got that notebook full of intelligent-sounding words and has twice used the word “ineffable”. I can see where this could be interpreted as seeking approval from people he considers better than, but I think deep down he just doesn’t consider most people to be important.

    And I agree with this part dragging on more than Part I did. I liked the parts with Dewey back in Holcomb better than the parts in Mexico with Dick and Perry. And it really made me think how god-awful long it’s going to take a class of high school students to get through. I foresee in class reading days.

  2. I just started into Part 3, and within the first few pages, Marie (Dewey’s wife) sees a pic of Perry and refers to his “arrogant face,” so she seems to agree with you 🙂 I get where you’re coming from, but I’m not fully convinced yet.

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