I have to confess, first and foremost, that this is the first Truman Capote novel I can recall reading. I've probably partaken in a few of his short stories (not that any particular ones come to mind), but I wasn't sure that qualified me to read and review SUMMER CROSSING, his latest, first, and "lost" novel.
The four notebooks and 62 pages of notes that comprise the manuscript were found in an assortment of boxes that Capote had left behind in a basement apartment in Brooklyn after catapulting to fame with his novel OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS (1948). The house sitter, instructed to put it all out for the garbage, opted instead to hold onto the boxes, and eventually died. His estate, upon opening boxes of letters and writings belonging to Capote, immediately contacted Sotheby's, who got in touch with Alan U. Schwartz, Capote's attorney. Ultimately, the papers were purchased by the New York Public Library to become part of their Truman Capote Papers and, after much rumination and discussion, was decided that SUMMER CROSSING should be published. There is a very good afterword by Schwartz detailing this account and his relationship with Capote that definitely should be included in the reading.
So here is Capote's first novel, begun in 1943 when he is 19, has been a New Yorker since the age of nine, and presumably is working on what would become his first success, the aforementioned OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS. I will tell you that SUMMER CROSSING can be read in probably a little more than (or a little under) an hour, depending upon the reader. There's nothing particularly "heavy" about the book and, in fact, some of it is rather predictable, but I did find myself going back and reading it a second time. This was done partly to recall details for this review and partly to confirm what I found after my first read --- that the naïve, clumsily written, unedited-in-its-contemporary-form novel I was expecting really was nowhere to be found. Instead, SUMMER CROSSING is a clever, ironic little package that clearly demonstrates Capote had already honed his skills of observing both the upper and lower tiers of New York society.
Grady McNeil is Capote's "heroine." She is an 18-year-old socialite who has just been left "home alone" for an entire summer by her overly wealthy (yes, you really can be too rich), overly uninvolved parents whose transatlantic trip to Europe is the basis for the book's title. In fact, moments before the ship sails, her mother, Lucy McNeil, whose main concern is checking on the house in Cannes to which they've not been since the war and deciding which Parisian couture house she will seek out to design Grady's debutante gown, suddenly realizes what a TERRIBLE idea it is to leave her young, innocent daughter alone and unaccompanied in New York City for three months. Alas, her lack of common sense prevails and off they sail.
After seeing her parents off, and seeing her older sister Apple back off to her married home in the Hamptons (summer home, I'm sure), Grady immediately high-tails it to a graveled parking lot near Broadway where we meet her urgent reason for staying in New York all summer --- Clyde Manzer. Clyde is everything Grady is not. He is not from Manhattan (Brooklyn), not a WASP (Jewish --- to which, upon hearing, Grady replies, after an interminable silence, "And am I supposed to care? I really don't, you know."), and he is not familiar with doormen, society or wealth. His speech is sprinkled with "Hiya's" and "bastards" and "aawwws" and "ain'ts." Grady and Clyde are both rather stereotypical, but as it is all part of Capote's plan, it doesn't matter and is soon forgiven.
Grady has decided that she is in love, is misunderstood by her parents (incidentally, her mother's second child was a stillborn boy whom she named Grady. Seven years later, she gives her second daughter the same name as if to remind herself and her daughter daily of the boy she was cheated of), and doesn't really want all the trappings of a society lifestyle, yet proceeds to play house with Clyde in the McNeil's Fifth Avenue penthouse all summer. She learns to tolerate his loud, mouthy friends and their blowsy girlfriends, and even learns to ignore the fact that, according to Clyde, he is engaged to another girl. Despite the fact that she has realized her childhood friend, Peter Bell, is in love with her and could prove to be her salvation (if she has to marry within her circle, she could do a lot worse than taking on her long-time partner in crime as a mate), Grady continues speeding down a very curvy and possibly dangerous road with Clyde.
Now, as I mentioned before, this is not a long book and has a few surprises in it. I am not going to ruin the book for you by revealing any of them here, so at this point all plot discussion is over.
Capote's characters are a bit too absurd to be totally believable, but then again, this was his first attempt. Grady's supposed naivete, at times hard to swallow, is made up for by her innocent arrogance and her attempts at trying not to be an 18-year-old in love with an older, unsuitable boy. Clyde's hector-macho-camacho exterior is forgiven during the instances when we see that he really is just a 23-year-old unsuitable boy who knows he's not worthy but still feels a semblance of love for his society gal. Clyde's friends --- Mink and Gump, Winifred and more --- all appear instantly annoying but quickly garner sympathy for their childlike view of the world.
There is no doubt in my mind that Capote was a champion observer (which got him into such hot water some decades later) --- for it is the little details of each character, each conversation, each subplot that prevent all from being trite and threadbare. He reminds me much of Dorothy Parker because she too could create a character whom you dislike, know you should despise, and feel a great amount of superiority to, but then they can both throw in one sentence that changes everything and makes you feel bad for all those previous feelings because, really, the poor dear just couldn't help being who she/he was.
I like SUMMER CROSSING very much and already know that there is a third and fourth reading of it in my future as well as first readings of more of Capote's work. Whether you are an established Truman Capote fan/reader or not, put this book on your holiday reading list as it will provide a lovely little interlude between parties, dinners and oh! Just being young and free and lively!
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on January 23, 2011