Book review: “Answered Prayers” by Truman Capote

Randomly picked off a library book shelf the other day, Truman Capote’s last work, Answered Prayers (posthumously published in 1986), was a first for me. Although I’ve been intrigued for a long time, I kept avoiding Capote, confident that I’d dislike his writing as much as I dislike what I’d known were his usual themes: socialites, jet set shenanigans, and the sort of debauchery appealing to bored-out-of-their-minds nouveaux riches. And Answered Prayers is precisely one such book.

It’s been described as “Proustian”, apparently even by the author himself. I almost put it back on the shelf when I saw the word prominently displayed on the back cover. Not a big fan. I’ll be honest: reading Proust for me was an endlessly boring experience, a form of mental torture I’ll never again willfully submit to. Capote, however… I can’t remember the last time I’ve read a book in one sitting. Granted, it isn’t a very long one (176 pages), although I did have to pause occasionally to look up some of the 1960s and ’70s cultural references. The style is rich and immersing, to the point of successfully obscuring just how fragmented the book really is: ultimately published as Answered Prayers: an Unfinished Novel, it’s actually a collection of loosely connected short stories. A GoodReads reviewer posted: “Too bad that this is an unfinished novel. I could have given this at least 4 stars.” Initially, I didn’t even notice the book was unfinished. In any case, it’s getting all 5 stars from me!

Capote’s humour is vicious throughout. If you can call it humour. He’s witty, all right, but more than anything, he’s snarky. I don’t know much about Capote, and I have no idea what possessed him to go after his high society friends and benefactors with such a scathing critique. No wonder quite a few of the great and the good mentioned in the book severed ties with him after the early publication of some parts of the book. There’s lots of gossip in there, exposure of dirty laundry, fascination with sexual proclivities… Almost everyone is gay (or to use Capote’s preferred term, queer). And those who aren’t are certainly willing to prostitute themselves on their way up the social ladder. At no point does love come into the equation. Humorous though the book may seem, there’s actually a lot of bitterness on Capote’s part.

Portions of the book felt dated, simply because the narratives are so deeply immersed in the ’60s and the ’70s. I couldn’t help thinking that today it’s almost impossible to feel how outrageous his writing must have been at the time. Or rather, we might be able to feel some of it, but we can’t fully experience it. What must have seemed utterly scandalous only several decades ago, is now practically the order of the day. That alone is bound to affect the reception, since Capote obviously counted on shock effect. Socialites of today would hardly shun the author; they would be much more likely to revel in that kind of negative publicity.

Finally, I must comment on the sort of religious import of the book. It is about answered prayers, after all. The title is a direct reference to Spanish mystic St Teresa of Ávila’s “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” Capote doesn’t discuss God, but the book is not devoid of religious allusions, or implications even. Some of his characters are defined in religious/denominational terms (Ned Rorem: “a Quaker queer–which is to say a queer Quaker–an intolerable combination of brimstone behavior and self-righteous piety”); others pray–notably the ones you would least expect to. Typically people turn to prayer once they’ve reached rock bottom and have nothing and no one else to turn to. Capote’s characters, however, appear to reach rock bottom precisely as a result of answered prayers. This seems like a curious twist, but not one that Christian mystics of Ávila’s ilk would find surprising.

To sum up, Answered Prayers was a very enjoyable read, fast-paced and cleverly written. The subject confirmed my prejudice against Capote; his writing style completely dispelled it.

[This review was originally posted on my old, now defunct blog, Saunterer’s Journal, in October 2015. This updated version contains minor edits.]  

Cover image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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