Truman Capote's novel: going from Aunt Sook to the jet set

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Answered Prayers: An Unfinished Novel, by Truman Capote. New York: Random House. 180 pp. $16.95. Now that Truman Capote's ``Answered Prayers'' has finally come out in book form, even the most ardent Capote devotee can stand up and shout, ``Who cares?''

Nothing has been added to the three notorious segments that originally appeared in Esquire. A fourth was published in a 1980 Capote volume, ``Music for Chameleons.'' It is all an anticlimax after Capote's coy posturing and mysterious hinting about his novel to come.

``Here I was - off again on one of those grim gambles!'' he said of writing this book. It's the kind of departure that can indeed be a daring enterprise even for an accomplished author - even for one writing about what he knows and especially in this case whom he knows.

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``But I was excited; I felt an invisible sun shining on me. Still, my first experiments were awkward. I truly felt like a child with a box of crayons.''

Maybe that's the way he felt with his earlier ventures, too. But they advanced far beyond the crayon stage evidenced in ``Answered Prayers.'' Recall Capote's melodic and touching songs of the South - regional yet universal.

``The Grass Harp,'' for example, evoked an era and gave it enduring life. Later, ``A Christmas Memory'' plucked mercilessly at the heartstrings, but nobody minded, because the characters of the seven-year-old boy Truman (called ``Buddy'') and his elderly cousin, Aunt Sook, transcended any elements of the maudlin or melodramatic.

There was the fey quality he expertly transported to New York in ``Breakfast at Tiffany's.'' And, by contrast, there was the gutsy, but no less feeling, semi-fictional reportage of the highly acclaimed ``In Cold Blood.''

Then came Capote's growing air of decadent celebrity. He was no longer sitting on Aunt Sook's unpainted steps, but - with a bunch of vapid jet-setters - climbing the granite stairs of the Plaza Hotel to his famous orgy of success, the Black and White Ball.

Using his jet-set friends in a scurrilous novel was the uneasy - or too easy - task he set for himself in ``Answered Prayers.'' And now it's clear we've heard it all before - three unsequential ``chapters'': ``Unspoiled Monsters,'' ``Kate McCloud,'' and the veiled expos'e of his friends, ``La C^ote Basque.''

The abortive ``novel'' is narrated by a bisexual prostitute named P.B. Jones, who escaped from an orphanage at the age of 13. Much of his narration is prurient.

If ``Answered Prayers'' has any plot at all, it's in the first two chapters, ``Unspoiled Monsters'' and ``Kate McCloud.'' But plot is not the issue here - a good deal of rather self-conscious style, gossip, other prattle, and calculated shock are. But being outrageous, of course, was Capote's ``thing.''

The final stuck-on chapter, ``La C^ote Basque,'' named after one of Capote's favorite restaurants, probably does the most skillful job of portraying Jones as the rabid gossipmonger he is.

But from an artistic point of view, Capote's effort in ``Answered Prayers'' makes one wish that it had been conceived and developed in the short-story form, that Capote's avowed and focused intention had been merely - modestly but masterfully - to portray Jones's curious and colorful mind.

That might have saved it.

J. Denis Glover is on the Monitor's staff.

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