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Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. - book reviews

If the latest biography of Truman Capote downplays the legendary author's literary contributions and focuses on his life among the rich and famous, it's by design: Author George Plimpton knows that, like Capote himself, we want dessert first. Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career constructs a careful portrait of the child genius, the author of the best-sellers Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood, and the sad, drunken caricature that Capote became. But it soars when its famous cast of characters evoke the occasionally terrible man they all loathed and admired and the often awful things he did during his lifetime.

Plimpton employs the oral-biography format he made famous with previous books on Robert Kennedy and Edie Sedgwick, drawing his reader into an ersatz cocktail party where an the guests attempt to outdo one another with "I knew Truman" stories. But while his contemporaries are doing the talking, it's Capote's inimitably squeaky voice that resounds throughout the book's nearly 500 pages.

Norman Mailer, who once called Capote the best writer of his generation, is among those who recall the author's very gay life. Others remember his long relationship with his lover Jack Dunphy and his sad romance with academic Newton Arvin. His cousin reveals that after Capote achieved fame family members prevented him from moving back to his hometown of Monroeville, Ala., fearing that he'd bring his gay friends with him.

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Plimpton's powerful interviews--with such luminaries as Gore Vidal, Lauren Bacall, Liz Smith, and Lee Radziwill--provide both a cacophony of famous voices and an unnerving number of contradictions. There are several versions of how Capote and Dunphy met and differing accounts of how he responded to his mother's death. But even with all this weighing in, the story on Capote is far from complete: Despite a longish section on his groundbreaking true-crime "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood, cover age of Capote's writing career is modest, and his stint as a playwright in the early '50s is all but passed over.

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