Cold Winds

Walter Nash

  • Answered Prayers by Truman Capote
    Hamish Hamilton, 181 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 241 11962 6
  • A Rich Full Death by Michael Dibdin
    Cape, 204 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 224 02387 X
  • Leaning in the Wind by P.H. Newby
    Faber, 235 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 14512 4
  • The Way-Paver by Anne Devlin
    Faber, 155 pp, £8.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 14597 3

The narrator and protagonist of Answered Prayers is one P.B. Jones, failed writer and competent sexual athlete, a scurrilous charmer who – to lift a pithy phrase from the poet Martial – tantos et tantas amat. Latin allusions are appropriate to the style of a book which oddly suggests the libertine rhetoric of some later Roman text: in the sly elegance of the syntax, the jaunty terseness of phrase, the not infrequent obscenity of the lexicon (there are words like ‘muffdiver’, which you will not find in your Funk and Wagnall’s); most of all, in the calculated scabrousness of some episodes. Truman Capote’s title, which is also the title of a book his hero has written, is taken from St Teresa: ‘More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.’ What this may foretell – other than, perhaps, that couplings will end in comeuppances – we cannot readily judge, because what Capote has left us is only a sample, in three chapters, of a novel begun more than two decades ago, published in piecemeal extracts, and never finished.

PB’s versatility in the sins of the flesh secures him employment as a peripatetic stud on the books of an agency called Self Service. The agency is run by a butch lady called Victoria Self, who wears hausfrau braids and a blue serge suit, and who hints at painful punishments awaiting those who infringe the rules of her exotic craft. This is one apparent strand in the plot. Another is that PB, an operator so unabashedly mercenary that he can describe himself as a Hershey Bar whore, has seemingly contrived to fall in love and to taste some of the torments reserved for venal souls who stray into sincerity. From such indications we might predict the development of a story, but of course the clues may be misleading. All that really happens in the three chapters is that PB is set free to travel, to tattle, to be a man of discriminating parts (I’ll pitch,’ he tells his employer, ‘but I won’t catch’), to be privy to all manner of miching mallecho, to betray benefactors, and to reveal the unlovely, possibly fictional, secrets of known persons on life’s real stage. It is not surprising that the third chapter (called ‘La Côte Basque’, after a well-known restaurant in New York) should have alienated some of Capote’s best friends. What is surprising is that he was surprised.

Capote could write, not a doubt of it; he was never boring; he had the enviable rapidity, the stride, of a powerful wit; and like all good bar-companions, he could compel amusement. Armed for morality, and determined to read with a visage as crusty as Cato’s, I am nevertheless forced to laugh at the voluble impudence of some passages, the suddenness of the comic assault. But there is very little innocent laughter in this book. The prevailing tone is the giggling of the vicious, beside which the crackling of thorns under a pot is a pleasantly musical sound; and it is a melancholy thing to see, in the space of a hundred and eighty pages, a writer become a raconteur, a raconteur become a gossip dishing the exclusive dirt. The reader looks on at the shameful spectacle, a wincing outsider, a visitor to the privileged unenviable zoo, where all the animals are deluded and lonely monsters.

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