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Tuesday
Jun252013

Shut a Final Door

'I was in a bookshop, and a man was standing there and we began talking: a middle-aged man, rather nice, very intelligent.  When I went outside he followed, a little ways behind: I crossed the street, he crossed the street, I walked fast, he walked fast.  This kept up six or seven blocks, and when I finally figured out what was going on I felt tickled, I felt like kidding him on.  So I stopped at the corner and hailed a cab; then I turned around and gave this guy a long, long look, and he came rushing up, all smiles.  And I jumped in the cab, and slammed the door and leaned out the window and laughed out loud: the look on his face, it was awful, it was like Christ.  I can't forget it.  And tell me, Anna, why did I do this crazy thing?  It was like paying back all the people who've ever hurt me, but it was something else, too.'  [Walter] would tell Anna these stories, go home and go to sleep.  His dreams were clear blue.  

"What was the use of having friends," muses the protagonist of this story, "if you couldn't discuss them objectively?"  Perhaps because in so doing you no longer have humans but merely objects, as if you were friends with a lamp or a sunset.  I suppose there are only two ways to get on in the world: on your own strengths or on the backs of others.  I also suppose that the very notion of getting on in the world admits the likelihood that so many struggle, collapse, fail, and die a thousand times before actual corporal extinction.  And those who get on, are they truly happy?  Material wealth can never sustain happiness, because you will inevitably discover someone happier in this same way and because money is always relative, and we are not.  We are absolute beings, related to one another surely and often inexorably, but we are not simply values on a scale to be seen from an indefinite number of perspectives.  In all of us there is something individual and unrepeatable; most souls, sadly, are all too willing to conform because conformity means human relations and acceptance and peace, and also because, we are told, failure is very much a certainty, and "there is always peace in certainties."  But if those who get on do not fail, or do not fail quite as much, what is their destination?   That may be a question for which the upwardly mobile Walter Ranney does not have an answer.

We meet Ranney in the throes of blame, his target a woman called Anna, whom we will encounter much later on.  To Anna he will ultimately attribute "every vice but stupidity" – exactly, we note, what he thinks of himself – yet Anna's "malice" will be one of the last doors slammed in Walter's face.  The first, we learn, may have been in his family as a youth, where his "churchly mother" and a monstrous father conspired to tear him asunder, each attempting an upbringing in his own way (his sister Cecile manages her own escape by marrying "a man forty years her senior," an "excuse" Walter found "reasonable enough").  From this purgatory Walter emerges in New York, where he meets Irving, "a sweet little Jewish boy," and Margaret, who is Irving's girlfriend as far as Irving is concerned.  The problem, of course, is that Irving is indeed concerned, while Walter and Margaret, an uncomely girl redeemed only by a certain "hectic brightness," are not, not at all.  Betrayal taints every fiber of their lecherous shapes, invisible only to Irving, because anyone else would never let his girlfriend spend more than a few polite and distant moments with Walter Ranney.  At length, there is a showdown:

Irving was sitting at the bar, his cheeks quite pink, his eyes rather glazed.  He looked like a little boy playing grown-up, for his legs were too short to reach the stool's footrest; they dangled doll-like.  The instant Margaret recognized him she tried to turn around and walk out, but Walter wouldn't let her.  And anyway, Irving had seen them: never taking his eyes from them, he put down his whiskey, slowly climbed off the stool, and, with a sad, ersatz toughness, strutted forward.    

Irving, you see, is "everyone's little brother," and Walter Ranney would gladly stab his own brother for the opportunity to make something of himself, even if he is not altogether sure what that something might involve.  Margaret in her bright and hectic way sees Walter as a natural in retail sales, perhaps because she intuits that his great strength is making other people believe they need something from him.  As such, she obtains for him an interview with her employer, Kurt Kurnhardt Advertising:  

The K.K.A., so-called, was a middle-sized agency, but, as such things go, very good, the best.  Kurt Kurnhardt, who'd founded it in 1925, was a curious man with a curious reputation: a lean, fastidious German, a bachelor, he lived in an elegant black house on Sutton Place, a house interestingly furnished with, among other things, three Picassos, a superb music box, South Sea Island mask and a burly Danish youngster, the houseboy.  He invited occasionally some one of his staff in to dinner; whoever was favorite at the moment, for he was continually selecting protégés.  It was a dangerous position, these alliances being, as they were, whimsical and uncertain: the protégé found himself checking the want ads when, just the evening previous, he'd dined most enjoyably with his benefactor.  During his second week at the K.K.A., Walter, who had been hired as Margaret's assistant, received a memorandum from Mr. Kuhnhardt asking him to lunch, and this, of course, excited him unspeakably.

Unspeakable actions do ensue, predominantly on Walter's part, but since ours is a story of doors slammed, doors to a father who mocks his child much like Walter teases an admirer in the passage that begins this review, we already understand this to be a tale of comeuppance.  So when he meets Anna, a tall woman who wore "black suits, affected a monocle, a walking cane, and pounds of jingling Mexican silver," we should not be surprised that it is Anna who puts him in his rightful and despicable place (her quip, "you're a man in only one respect, sweetie," precedes a similar line in this famous novel by a few years).  And although Walter has "clear blue" dreams most nights, he will occasionally be subject to a nightmare.  Or a phone call or two –  and we must end our revelations right here. 

Many of his countrymen know Capote only by reputation, not having actually read this magnificent work of genius, but instead absorbed one of its cinematic adaptations (the best of which remains this film).  His wit and impeccable style are an oddity of American literature, which has so valued tales of survival and superation to those which simply explore the artistic dividends of emotional truth.  You will always recognize Capote by his ingenious but hardly conspicuous use of the comma, as well as by the details only visible to a gifted mind: "The look on the boy's face was good for his digestion"; "A small gratifying flurry among the typists preceded him"; "After a pleasant hour of doing nothing but feel exhilarated"; "I love you, he said, running after her, I love you, he said, saying nothing"; "It was as if his brain were made of glass, and all the whiskey he'd drunk had turned into a hammer; he could feel the shattered pieces rattling in his head, distorting focus, falsifying shape"; "A dozen or so people whose names cast a considerable glare in his address book."  Yet the most remembered quote from Shut a Final Door remains its most hackneyed, All our acts are acts of fear, allegedly a last line to a poem, if one that no self-respecting poet would ever have composed.  I personally prefer the very apposite observation that "darlings are rarely serious."  Because that rare and serious darling, if scorned, will learn hate just as fluently as she learned love.  

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