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In Cold Blood Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The great theme of In Cold Blood, if it can be called a theme, is America itself. The America of Capote's book is a vast sprawling landscape of deserts and beaches and plains, laundromats and diners. One is constantly impressed by the sheer distance, the amount of miles traveled, the amount of miles there are to travel. Dick Hickock and Perry Smith travel over eight hundred miles in twenty-four hours to commit their crimes. Afterward they travel to Mexico, back to Kansas, to Florida, Texas, and Nevada. Perry spends his childhood following his parents from Texas to Oregon. He and his father move to Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska. As a young man Perry goes from Seattle to Honolulu to Worcester, Massachusetts; St. Joseph, Missouri; McCook, Nebraska; and New York City. Perry "washed dishes in an Omaha restaurant, pumped gas at an Oklahoma garage, worked a month on a ranch in Texas." This sounds like an older America, an Old West America of pioneers and cowboys, a place of dissatisfied travelers who seek their destiny elsewhere, a land where the right job or good luck or gold is always in the next town, a neighboring state, in Alaska, Florida, or maybe Oklahoma. This is a country that by its sheer size and the variety of its landscapes seems to promise bounty, more than enough for everyone, and sets people dreaming and traveling. That size and variety is at the root of the myth of America. It is a place people have, because of industrialization and mass media, almost forgotten. Capote's book restores this America to memory.

The novel tells about the myth of America and how, in contemporary society at least, it can poison. Perry Smith is an American dreamer. He reads the dictionary to improve his vocabulary and loves hard, obscure words. He is a great believer in self-improvement, the peculiarly American obsession. He wants to hunt diamonds, buried treasure, so the killers go to Mexico. Perry starts to realize his dreams are untenable in America, and decides that maybe they could sail around the world, dreaming. Perry's done it all his life. As readers watch Perry stumbling across the American landscape they realize that this huge country which seems to promise so much can deliver very little. It begins to seem too big, monstrously large. It can engulf an individual in its indifferent size. It comes to seem a place where the weak and the disaffected can slip unnoticed into the cracks or get tangled in its teasing possibilities and wind up with rage and frustration crowding out whatever moral sense was there. One's sense of the unmanageability of the country is only heightened by the search for the killers. The police discover their identity by accident. The same landscape which helps to create Perry Smith takes him back in, enfolds him in its size, hides him. At one point they even pause again in Kansas, undetected.

Upon this vast backdrop Capote paints, in minute detail, the village of Holcomb, Kansas, a county of Garden City. It is a place of pastoral beauty. Everyone knows everyone else and their business. There is a cafe to gather and gossip in, a rather eccentric postmistress, an old mansion converted into apartments and called the Teacher-age because most of the school faculty lives there. It is farmland where silos and barns are common, a place where the Stetson wearing men are men and the apron wearing women are women. It is the kind of town that another American myth is made of, that of the peaceful small town peopled with upright citizens who are the backbone of this country, not because they are the power brokers, but because they go about the ordinary business of their lives without much fuss. They take pride in doing whatever their part is well and they are, as the saying goes, what makes America work. This is the kind of place, in the movies, where Dorothy and Toto lived, where Jimmy Stewart realized it was a wonderful life. These towns, like the landscape they cluster upon but do not dominate, are part of Americans' collective...

(The entire section is 1,911 words.)