Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

othervoicesOther Voices, Other Rooms was Truman Capote’s first novel, and I have picked it up because it was referenced in The Used World. Such is the power of Haven Kimmel.

This is a strange, spooky, sad tale, beginning with an unwanted child: we meet 13-year-old Joel as he’s hitching a ride en route from New Orleans to a crumbling estate in Mississippi. He had been living with his aunt following his mother’s death; now he has been summoned to his father, who he’s never met. Upon arriving at Skully’s Landing, he finds no father, but an odd stepmother and her even odder cousin, Randolph. Approximating friends are a neighbor tomboy named Idabel and a black servant named Zoo. Eventually Joel’s father is revealed, mute, bedridden, and as horrifying as everything and everyone else at the Landing. Among these horrors are a ghostly woman in a window where no woman belongs; a cottonmouth “thick as his leg, long as a whip”; and a mule who hangs himself.

Randolph is clearly gay, and a model for the effeminate Joel to consider, for better or for worse – sexuality aside, Randolph has a dubious moral code. He relates (among other things) the story of how he met Joel’s father, in an episode that rather reminded me of The Sun Also Rises, in which a motley mismatch of characters in a debauched setting (here, New Orleans) are remarkably frank about who wants who sexually. Later, when Joel attends a country fair with Idabel, things turn more towards Alice in Wonderland, in its sinister moments. But Capote is in his own class here, regardless of my literary comparisons. He evokes a startling, ghostly, creepy, sleepy yet stark atmosphere, and for me, that atmosphere was the great accomplishment of this novel.

Plot-wise, Joel’s story is one where not a great deal happens but a major life change takes place, anyway. This is a coming-of-age story, in which Joel starts off decidedly a child but finishes – just a few months later – a young man with a somewhat clearer picture of himself. (But, I think, no happier.) Part of that coming-of-age regards his sexuality, but only in an unstated, amorphous way, which is a fair description of the whole book, really. In fact, I have to admit to some trouble following things, as so much is unstated and wavering and strangely expressed from varying and unreliable viewpoints. That this novel is at least vaguely autobiographical I guessed; that there were themes of understanding one’s sexuality and coming-of-age was clear to me. But the rest was less clear. In fact I was reminded somewhat (to drop another literary name) of Faulkner, a la The Sound and the Fury. I won’t bother regurgitating it for you here – they are not my own interpretations – but even Wikipedia (for example) gets way more out of this story than I got. Go figure.

I think Other Voices, Other Rooms is likely to be another great candidate for a “close reading” with a knowledgeable guide – I picture my high school English teacher, Mrs. Smith – to direct related readings and fill me in on the background. Without such assistance, I still enjoyed a creepy, weird tale of cobwebbed, forgotten Southern grandeur and depravity. Take it as you will. If nothing else, Capote’s talent shines through and foreshadows his future success – but I still prefer In Cold Blood.

Rating: 6 bluejay feathers.

One Response

  1. […] I get to know a writer. I recall being deeply impressed by In Cold Blood, but I hardly remember Other Voices, Other Rooms at all, so there’s […]

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