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Austin Chronicle In Person

By Claiborne Smith

FEBRUARY 23, 1998: 

George Plimpton doesn't talk like anyone I know.

On second thought, I don't think he talks like anyone. During one moment of his reading from his latest oral biography, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $35 hard), the punchline centered around the word "arm," a word that emerged from Plimpton's mouth as something akin to "ahhm," causing the couple in front of me to ask one another what Plimpton was saying. Plimpton's unique elocutions precede him, but I doubt that's the reason the scattered, appreciative crowd attended this event at UT's Jessen Auditorium sponsored by the Texas Center for Writers.

The above occurrence is indicative, however, of the ways Plimpton's otherworldliness coincided with that of his subject: Both belong to a rarified world. Plimpton means for his book to open up Capote's existence by cataloging the reminiscences of the people who knew him, or, in some cases, didn't know him all that well. Capote doesn't add all that much to the dialogue that hasn't been covered already by Gerald Clarke's biography and other Capote texts (except for the Kansas individuals involved with In Cold Blood ), so it would have been nice if Plimpton just told some stories about Capote instead of relying on reading his book. Instead, the off-the-cuff stories Plimpton told were about himself, albeit hilarious ones. One in particular concerned a slight fib he once told about being bitten by a cobra which he allowed to become a grandiose myth. It's a good thing that cobra story is a lie, because it would have been difficult to imagine Plimpton (even though he's the cultural adventurer he is) surviving a cobra with his reedy frame.

Though the contributors may be familiar, a benefit of compiling all possible voices, detractors and friends alike, is that the contributors, as Julia Reed notes in her New York Times Book Review review, end up "accidentally arguing with each other," which Capote would have loved. As Reed observes, "On a single page, Kenneth Jay Lane says, 'I cannot think of one funny thing that Truman has ever said,' while Dotson Rader insists: 'He was a great raconteur. Probably the greatest of the century.'"

That complex dialogue did not take place at Plimpton's reading, but then there was more than just Capote to talk about. - Claiborne Smith


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