Before Holly Golightly and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there was Grady McNeil and Summer Crossing. Grady was a headstrong 17-year-old debutante whose ”green estimating eyes were like scraps of sea,” lived in a Fifth Avenue penthouse, loved everything unbridled and unexpected about New York that her society family did not, and was the invention of a writer who was himself not yet 20. It was in 1943 that he first began to tinker with Grady’s future, experimenting with the notions of social class, culture clash, and sexuality that would fascinate him for a lifetime. The young man, a self-invented extraordinary creature with roots in New Orleans and a personality born to hold court in Gotham, set aside Summer Crossing to write what became his triumphant debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, then picked the manuscript up again and noodled with it on and off for a decade before storing it away, unfinished, for good. In between, he became Truman Capote, one of the great voices of 20th-century literature.
That the surprise rediscovery of this work should result in publication just when Philip Seymour Hoffman is stirring up Oscar interest for his title performance in the biopic Capote is — well, it’s just one of those serendipities that makes Manhattan commerce so great, isn’t it? The novel — about Grady’s unlikely and unapproved love affair with Clyde Manzer, a Brooklyn-soaked Jewish ex-GI and parking garage attendant, one hot city summer while her parents are overseas totting up wartime damage to their villa in Cannes — is far from great; whether Capote, who died in 1984, would have wanted to see his green work in print is a discussion for other ethicists, other magazines. But for readers ravished by the mature Capote’s glittering command of language, and especially for devotees of the irrepressible Miss Golightly, this early prototype is nothing but fascinating.
Crossing is lousy on plot — the budding author was desperately unsure about where to go (as, indeed, he was with all his stories toward the depleted end). But the writing is nervously alive with the excitement of Capote enjoying his own strengthening powers of describing people, streets, the feeling of New York summers, when ”heat closed in like a hand over a murder victim’s mouth.” Especially people: A schoolgirl friend of Grady’s is ”scholarly, and bourgeois as a napkin ring;” Clyde’s kid brother, due for a bar mitzvah, is ”a whiny, worm-white, unwilling child, with banged-up bandaged knee, a baldy haircut and daredevil eyes.” The novelist-in-training doesn’t yet have the maturity to get beyond the exoticism of otherness and capture the person (the very thing he did to perfection in In Cold Blood), and Clyde’s whole Jewish blue-collar family is an unwieldy mishmash of sentiment and stereotype. (His beloved damaged sister might be on loan from Tennessee Williams.)
But already Capote’s ability to identify the currents of emotion, energy, and attitude on which New Yorkers zig and zag is acute. ”To be elsewhere,” he wrote of Clyde, ”seemed a waste of time, an exile from the main current into sluggish by-streams where life was flat and spurious.” In Crossing, we get to watch the author practice plugging into that current, sentence by sentence.