In a Mexico City hotel room, Perry browses through his personal artifacts and papers. He comes across a letter written by his father on his behalf while at the Kansas State Penitentiary, detailing the events of Perry’s early life. As one of four children born to the Western rodeo duo of Tex John Smith and Florence Buckskin, Perry lived an impoverished and itinerant childhood until his parents’ separation when Perry was six years old. After living for a short while with his alcoholic mother, Perry was sent to a Catholic orphanage, where nuns routinely abused him for wetting the bed. After he contracted pneumonia from this and other forms of neglect, his father took him away to live in Alaska, where he learned to hunt and track, and to search for gold in nearby streams.
As a young man, Perry enlisted in the Merchant Marine and, subsequently, the Army. After several tours of duty, followed by a motorcycle accident that left him badly injured and immobile for six months, he rejoined his father in Alaska. Together they built a hunting lodge which, after all their labor, failed to attract clientele, and after a row with Tex John, Perry departed Alaska again, this time for good. He was subsequently arrested for robbery, which is how he came to be in the Kansas State Penitentiary.
Also among his personal papers is a letter from his sister, Barbara. Barbara is Perry’s only surviving sibling; his brother Jimmy and sister Fern have both committed suicide by the time the narrative opens. Barbara lives a comfortable life with her husband and three children in San Francisco, and scolds Perry for his irresponsible lifestyle and disrespect towards their father. Accompanying her letter is a commentary by Willie-Jay (“Impressions I Garnered from the Letter”) in which he proposes that Barbara is limited not only by her conventionalism, but by her own frustrations and insecurity related to their family history, and is therefore incapable of empathizing with Perry’s situation.
Agent Dewey pays a visit to the Clutter house, as he continues to grapple with the unyielding tangle of events surrounding the case. Jonathan Adrian, we are told, has been cleared of the charge, and Dewey is showing signs of the stress of the unsolved murders.
Dick, dissatisfied with the job opportunities available in Mexico, decides to return to the United States, and the pair make their way slowly north once again.
By the time that Perry and Dick reach the hotel room, Dick has revealed his opinion of Perry’s treasure-hunting schemes; and although this declaration “hurt and shocked” Perry it also, surprisingly, “charmed him, almost revived his former faith in the tough, the ‘totally masculine,’ the pragmatic, the decisive Dick he’d once allowed to boss him” (124). It appears that tension and rivalry, rather than harmony and accord, are ultimately what sustain their relationship, a point that will become significant later when the details of the murders are recounted.
The disappointments and vicissitudes of Perry’s early life are here revealed in full, and they have been formative to his current disposition. In particular, the mistreatment and humiliation at the hands of the “Black Widows” at the Catholic orphanage seem to have made a lasting impression on him, contributing to his sensitive outlook (which sometimes borders on paranoia) and his vulnerable self-image. We also learn that Perry’s father was emotionally – and literally – absent for large segments of his childhood, and Perry spent his adolescence isolated from his siblings and peers and without a traditional education (another premise for his later inferiority complex).
Perry’s sister, like Dick, uses him as a foil to convince herself that her own lifestyle is “normal,” and that she has escaped the misfortunes and mental dissolutions of her parents and siblings. Willie-Jay senses that the implicit agenda of her letter is to validate herself, and overcome her own insecurities about their family history by debasing Perry’s “unconventional” lifestyle and valorizing their parents. Nevertheless, Willie-Jay’s analysis of the letter has the effect of further alienating Perry: Perry internalizes the self-image Willie-Jay projects onto him, that he is beyond the understanding of most ordinary people, and as a result becomes more “antisocial” and isolated than ever.
Perry would like to be a nihilist, to completely discount the value of human life and the importance of those around him. In his journal he has inscribed the quote, “Why worry? What was there to ‘sweat about’? Man was nothing, a mist, a shadow absorbed by shadows” (147). But something holds him back from complete abandon: “But, damn it, you do worry, scheme, fret over your fingernails and the warnings of hotel managements”(147). Try as he might, he finds himself unable to let go of the concerns that most rankle him, which often take the form of the reprimands of others.
Following the initial frenzy caused by the crime, the residents of Garden City and Holcomb sink into its gloomy aftermath. Mrs. Dewey recounts a dream in which Bonnie Clutter informs her that there is “nothing worse” than to be murdered, indicating the psychological toll of the experience, even on those not directly involved. Alvin Dewey continues to dwell on the Clutter home, finding it a comforting symbol of quieter time. On some level, it seems, he hopes to find, within the material artifacts of the home, a resolution to the collective trauma that the residents of Garden City have suffered.