American novelist (In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), screenwriter, playwright, and actor (Neil Simon’s Murder by Death).
My Side of the Matter, first published in A Tree of Night and Other Stories, a short story collection, in 1949
Available to read online here – please search on the title of the story
This is the first of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how they introduce this method: “To question the reliability of the person to whom we are listening is to stop and look at our own reliability for a moment. To say that someone else is “being subjective” is to risk a similar complaint about oneself. It is not always possible to be sure whether a narrative is subjective or not. All we can ever do, in or out of fiction, is to test the speaker’s perspective against our own.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
My Side of the Matter
Meet young Mr Sylvester. He’s only 16, but had a good job at the Cash ‘n’ Carry until his new wife Marge (getting married – his first mistake) insists he gives it up to live with her and her two aunts because she’s pregnant (getting her pregnant – his second mistake) in the miserable settlement of Admiral’s Hill (“which is nothing but a damn gap in the road”). Sylvester wants to explain to what a hard time he’s had living with these three women, and is lucky to have escaped with his life (“On Sunday, August 12 […] Eunice tried to kill me with her papa’s Civil War sword and Olivia-Ann cut up all over the place with a fourteen-inch hog knife.”)
His relationship with the aunts started poorly and never got better. Eunice’s first words when she saw him were: “So this is what you ran off behind our backs and married, Marge? […] You sure must’ve picked the runt of the litter. Why this isn’t any sort of man at all.” Whatever Eunice says, Olivia-Ann says the same, although what Eunice doesn’t know is that Sylvester saw Olivia-Ann help Eunice’s canary escape by shooing it through an open window with a broom.
Marge asks if they can take the car to see the picture show at Phoenix City. Eunice is steadfast. “If you think I’d let that runt drive my just-as-good-as-brand-new 1934 Chevrolet as far as the privy and back you must’ve gone clear out of your head.” Sylvester insists he’s used to driving Chevvies but she just retorts “if he’s ever so much as driven a plow I’ll eat a dozen gophers fried in turpentine.” The sisters don’t even let him and Marge sleep together, despite being married; he has to sleep in a cot on the back porch.
So what actually happened on Sunday, August 12? Our hero was picking out a tune on Olivia-Ann’s piano when she complained at him for creating an infernal racket. Incensed, Sylvester confronts her about the canary. She walks out in a quiet fury, only to return with Eunice and Bluebell, the maid, and Eunice demanding the return of one hundred dollars she says she has stolen from her. He denies it, of course, but Marge beseeches him to return the money. “I said “Et tu Brute?” which is from William Shakespeare.” Bluebell adds her supportive voice of complaint, and as a result he “picked up this umbrella off the hat tree and rapped her across the head with it until it cracked smack in two. “My real Japanese silk parasol!” shrieks Olivia-Ann. Marge cries, “You’ve killed Bluebell!” He hadn’t of course. But they try to kill him before he kills them. As the scene descends into farce, Sylvester barricades himself into the parlour with all the ghastly heavy furniture, and we last see him munching through a five pound box of chocolates, occasionally playing the piano to let the others know he’s “cheerful”.
Apparently written when Capote was about 21, this is a lively and seemingly light-hearted tale but it hides a number of darker, more sinister themes. It’s a great choice as an example of subjective narration, because you really come away from it feeling that, as far as blame is concerned, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. Capote weaves an intricate web of truths and likely-falsehoods, and you really can’t tell when one ends and the other begins.
His use of language, particularly in the reporting of conversation, shows a most acute ear for bizarre turns of phrase. The “gophers” and “Brute” lines I’ve already quoted make you laugh out loud with their unexpected eloquence. Here are some more devastatingly good one-liners: “she is a natural born half-wit and ought to be really kept in somebody’s attic”; “she has this positively morbid crush on Gary Cooper and has one trunk and two suitcases full of his photos”; and “mosquitoes that could murder a buffalo, given half a chance, not to mention dangerous flying roaches and a posse of local rats big enough to haul a wagon train from here to Timbucktoo.”
I also like his device of not explaining things that cry out for explanation. Why is Olivia-Ann’s canary called Mrs Harry Steller Smith? How come Sylvester and Marge married so young, after only four days knowing each other, and clearly without family approval? Is there an ulterior motive for the aunts constantly to ridicule Sylvester’s masculinity? What’s Sylvester’s first name? And how come he is acquainted with Julius Caesar?
Masked with comedy, there is a lot of domestic violence in this story, with Sylvester admitting to slapping Marge, bringing Olivia-Ann down with a tackle and hitting Bluebell over the head. Olivia-Ann delivers a knee-punch to Sylvester, but you do sense that it is in self-defence. There’s criticism of the church and religious devotion, with the Morning Star Baptist Church having a preacher, “an awful old turd named Shell whom Eunice drug over one day to see about the salvation of my soul, I heard him with my own ears tell her I was too far gone”; and Olivia-Ann bellowing out hymns whilst planning her next physical assault on Sylvester.
There’s also some deep-south racism, with the N word used twice, and Sylvester seeing Bluebell as a justified target for his violence simply because of the colour of her skin. He also shows a derision for Eunice and Olivia-Ann’s papa by judging him from his portrait: “Papa is kind of handsome but just between you and me I’m convinced he has black blood in him from somewhere.” Of course, one has to assess that kind of language in the context of the age in which it was written, but it’s clear that Sylvester looks on people of colour as having less value.
It’s fair to say that you wouldn’t want to meet any of the characters in real life, although Sylvester would certainly be the most intriguing. There’s no doubt he has an admirable survival instinct, uses language as a weapon in the domestic wars that he has no real interest in waging. He’s also a layabout slob who you sense can probably turn on and off the charm with the flick of a mental switch. Very well written though; Capote packs a lot of content into nine or so pages and certainly proves that brevity is the soul of wit.
The next story in the anthology is the second of the subjective narration stories, Too Early Spring by Stephen Vincent Benét. I think I read some of his poems in an anthology of American poetry when I was at school – but that’s all I know of him.