One Christmas by Truman Capote, 1982
The magic trick:
Mixing the saccharine with the darkly sad
Capote’s two Christmas stories – “A Christmas Memory” and today’s feature – are masterpieces of autobiography, essentially setting the stage for David Sedaris’s career in personal memoir. Capote perfectly balances the individual and the universal. There is no doubt that our protagonist is a unique character, but we never feel like we can’t relate. It always feels like his plight is teaching us about our plight.
But that’s not even the magic trick I want to bring out today. The thing that really gets me about this story is its ability to be saccharine sweet one moment and heartbreakingly dark the next. The narrator jokes about learning about true love when he sees a toy airplane. You laugh. He talks about putting a photo of his mother under the Christmas tree. You swoon. He parenthetically mentions his mother’s suicide. You recoil. This is a warm, funny, nostalgic story. Until you realize that it simultaneously is not. And that’s quite a trick on Capote’s part.
But I wasn’t free of New Orleans yet. The problem was a large silver flask of moonshine; maybe it was be-cause of my departure, but anyway my father had been swilling it all day, and on the way to the bus station, he scared me by grabbing my wrist and harshly whispering: “I’m not going to let you go. I can’t let you go back to that crazy family in that crazy old house. Just look at what they’ve done to you. A boy six, almost seven, talking about Santa Claus! It’s all their fault, all those sour old spinsters with their Bibles and their knitting needles, those drunken uncles. Listen to me, Buddy. There is no God! There is no Santa Claus.” He was squeezing my wrist so hard that it ached. “Sometimes, oh, God, I think your mother and I, the both of us, we ought to kill ourselves to have let this happen—” (He never killed himself, but my mother did: She walked down the Seconal road thirty years ago.) “Kiss me. Please. Please. Kiss me. Tell your daddy that you love him.” But I couldn’t speak. I was terrified I was going to miss my bus. And I was worried about my plane, which was strapped to the top of the taxi. “Say it: ‘I love you.’ Say it. Please. Buddy. Say it.”
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