In which I review Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote’s 1948 Southern Gothic novel about a lonely young boy sent to live with his creepy relatives in Depression-era Mississippi.
What it’s about: Mississippi, the 1930s. Joel Knox, a lonely and effeminate 13 year-old boy, is sent to Mississippi to live with his father, who abandoned the family shortly after Joel’s birth. After a difficult journey, he arrives in the remote township of Noon City, and from there travels to his father’s home, a decaying mansion on a former slave plantation named Skully’s Landing. There he meets his dour stepmother Amy and her cousin Randolph, a flamboyantly gay drunkard who reminisces about a lost romance with a Latino boxer named Pepe. Joel’s father is mysteriously absent, and the only other inhabitants are the young housekeeper Missouri Fever (nicknamed Zoo) and her elderly father Jesus. Despite Joel’s frequent questions, no one will reveal his father’s whereabouts. Joel strikes up a friendship with Zoo, who dreams of escaping to live in the snowy Northern states, and his neighbour Idabel Thompkins, a ferocious tomboy. He also sees a “queer lady” with “fat dribbling curls” watching him from a upper window, whose presence is similarly unexplained. Joel finally discovers his father in an upstairs bedroom, paraplegic and partially mute after being accidentally shot by Randolph in a drunken brawl years before. Zoo leaves for Washington, and Joel and Idabel run away to a carnival in Noon City, where they meet a blonde midget named Miss Wisteria. Idabel disappears and Joel searches for her in a storm, taking refuge in an abandoned house before collapsing with pneumonia. He is rescued by Randolph who brings him back to the Landing and nurses him back to health. Zoo returns, describing a harrowing attempted rape by four men on a roadside. Joel receives a postcard from Idabel who has succeeded in leaving town. He returns home one afternoon to discover that his aunt has come to visit. He sees the queer lady again at the window, who we assume is Randolph in drag, and moves towards the house, determined to leave his boyhood behind him.
Why it’s a classic: Other Voices Other Rooms was Capote’s first full-length novel, written in his mid-20s following success as a short story writer and a growing reputation in New York’s literary scene. The story and milieu followed the Southern Gothic tradition of American literature, made popular by William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Capote’s friend and one-time mentor Carson McCullers – a genre often as campy as it is horrifying, featuring decaying mansions, insane relatives, nasty secrets in the attic, picturesque Black servants, sweaty summer days unrelieved by air-conditioning, and dinner tables groaning with “collards, yams, black-eyed peas [and] cornbread” washed down with rivers of bootlegged booze.
Into this baroque atmosphere, Capote added an undertow of intense emotional longing, strongly influenced by his unhappy childhood in the Depression-era Deep South. Like Joel, Capote was a precocious effeminate child, abandoned by his parents and shipped off to live with yokel relatives in the Deep South, spectacularly out of place in every setting and with a desperate (and largely unfulfilled) desire to be loved. In an essay published in 1973, Capote wrote “Other Voices, Other Rooms was an attempt to exorcise demons, an unconscious, altogether intuitive attempt, for I was not aware, except for a few incidents and descriptions, of its being in any serious degree autobiographical. Rereading it now, I find such self-deception unpardonable.” Perhaps that self-deception was a trick Capote needed to play on himself to make the writing process bearable, and not drown under the sadness of his own memories, rendered via the portrait of Joel with searing intensity.
Whatever he did, it worked – Other Voices, Other Rooms was an instant success, making the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks, selling over 26,000 copies, and announcing Capote as a major talent in American literature. His sales were also helped by a publicity photo taken by Harold Halma, in which a doe-eyed Capote stares into the camera, his hands resting over his crotch. The sexual suggestiveness of the photo created a minor scandal – the Los Angeles Times opined that Capote looked “as if he were dreamily contemplating some outrage against conventional morality” – giving him a notorious public persona to match his talent as a writer.
Publicity scandal aside, Other Voices, Other Rooms was praised for the astonishing beauty of its prose, and Capote’s use of landscape and weather to create an atmosphere of mounting dread and despair. Pound for pound, Capote gives Faulkner & Co a run for their money in terms of Southern Gothic detail: “The windows of the house are cracked and shattered, hollow as eyeless sockets; a rotted balcony leans perilously forward, and yellow sunflower birds hide their nests in its secret places; the scaling outer walls are ragged with torn, weather-faded posters that flutter when there is a wind.” He’s also a dab hand at pithy thumbnail portraits, giving us the essence of his characters in just a few carefully chosen words: Jesus’ face “was like a black withered apple, and almost destroyed; his polished forehead shone as though a purple light gleamed under the skin“, whereas Amy’s voice “had a weary, simpering tone; it struck the ear like the deflating whoosh of a toy balloon.”
The novel is also notable for its keen interest in and sensitivity to outsiders. Joel’s alienation and loneliness is reflected in almost every other character: the tomboy Idobel (based on Capote’s childhood pal and fellow author Harper Lee), pushing against the strictures of her gender, who sees in Joel a fellow non-conformist; Zoo, whose silk scarves and evangelical Christianity fail to hide her physical and emotional scars; the miserable Amy who threatens to leave the Landing but never can; and little Miss Wisteria, who claims to have met the crowned heads of Europe but is reduced to selling herself in a touring freak show. Capote’s characters are outcasts, who dream with varying degrees of success of lives better than the ones they are living. This fascination with people on the fringes of society became a mainstay of his later writing, from the feckless call girl Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s to the charismatic killer Perry Smith in In Cold Blood – all of them lost and wounded children, stumbling into adulthood with a wary gaze and a need to seduce or destroy.
And then there’s Cousin Randolph, one of the most fabulous characters in Capote’s work (and in all of American literature) – an unashamedly effeminate queen who seems more able than the rest to accept his reduced circumstances, and who becomes, slightly creepily, Joel’s love-object and emotional ballast. Capote’s portrayal of a gay man unashamed of his own sexuality, who speaks openly of his desire for other men – and who isn’t killed off in the final act as a warning about the wages of sin – was a major leap forward in literary presentations of homosexuality. The queerness of the story goes deeper still, as Randolph becomes a source of affection and even a role model for Joel, who smiles and moves towards “the queer lady” rather than running away. Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke offers the most persuasive interpretation of this final scene, in his 1998 book Capote: “Finally, when he goes to join the queer lady in the window, Joel accepts his destiny, which is to be homosexual, to always hear other voices and live in other rooms. Yet acceptance is not a surrender; it is a liberation. “I am me”, he whoops. “I am Joel, we are the same people.” So, in a sense, had Truman rejoiced when he made peace with his own identity.”
Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge bouquet of withered roses from the blasted gardens at Scully’s Landing. Capote is one of my all-time favourite writers, and the older I get, the more admiring (and envious) I become of his astonishing gifts as a writer, and his remarkable courage in living his sassiest gayest self, both on the page and in real life. I first read Other Voices, Other Rooms nearly 20 years ago, after being blown away by the crystalline brilliance of In Cold Blood, his non-fiction novel about two criminals who murder a Kansas farming family. While In Cold Blood is indisputably his masterpiece, and Breakfast At Tiffany’s his most well-known work (largely due to the enduring popularity of the 1961 film), it’s Other Voices, Other Rooms I return to most often. His prose is lush and languid and decadent – something he stripped away later in favour of a crisp and more precise High Modernist style – and while the subject matter is grim, you swoon with pleasure at each perfectly-weighted, breathtakingly beautiful sentence. “[T]he white afternoon was ripening towards the quiet time of day when the summer sky spills soft color over the drawn land,” he writes, in a rare moment of calm. “A sea of deepening green spread the sky like some queer wine, and across this vast green, shadowed clouds were pushed sluggishly by a mild breeze.” Each sentence reads like poetry, almost giddy with the sense of it own rhythmic beauty: “Rings of sunlight, shifting through the tree, dappled the dark grass like fallen gold fruit; bluebottle flies swarmed over melon rinds, and a cowbell, somewhere beyond the windmill, tolled lazily and long.”
I’d also forgotten just how truly queer this book, in both its old-fashioned and post-gay lib meanings. In Joel, we have one of the most astutely drawn portraits of a queer child who is Othered before he fully understands why. Our first glimpse of Joel, through the eyes of the macho truck driver Radclif, could be a textbook description of every pre-teen sissy: “[Radclif] had his notions of what a “real” boy should look like, and this kid somehow offended them. He was too pretty, too delicate and fair-skinned; each of his features was shaped with a sensitive accuracy, and a girlish tenderness softened his eyes, which were brown and very large. His brown hair, cut short, was streaked with pure yellow strands. A kind of tired, imploring expression masked his thin face, and there was an unyouthful sag about his shoulders.” Joel senses his Otherness just as keenly, and Capote describes his sense of alienation in a series of startlingly vivid images: “It was as if he lived those months wearing a pair of spectacles with green, cracked lenses, and had wax-plugging in his ears, for everything seemed to be something it wasn’t, and the days melted in a constant dream.” That sense of everything being something it wasn’t is true not just of little boys who grow up in crumbling Gothic mansions with relatives hidden in the attic, but also of little boys (and girls, like Idobel) who grow up with a sense of the not-rightness of the world they grow up in. When Miss Wisteria makes a sexual pass at Joel – one of the few moments of genuine tenderness in the novel – he recoils. “He dared not show himself, for what she wanted he could not give,” Capote writes, neatly essaying the plight of all closeted gay men.
While this queer subtext is fascinating, what’s most remarkable about Other Voices, Other Rooms – along with Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, published in the same year – is how both writers push open the door of the closet, naming the love that dared not speak its name. Firstly, there’s the word “queer”, that Capote repeats again and again until everything in his story becomes queered: family relationships are irrevocably warped, reflections in mirrors become distorted and ugly, creating a vacuum in which the “perverse” (and possibly incestuous) love of Randolph and Joel feels sincere and authentic. Then there’s Randolph, eloquently and playfully describing his infatuation with Pepe and his “blond misty boy” and offering droll torch-song treatises on the right to love whom you choose: “The brain may take advice, but not the heart, and love, having no geography, knows no boundaries: weight and sink it deep, no matter, it will rise and find the surface: and why not? any love is natural and beautiful that lies within a person’s nature; only hypocrites would hold a man responsible for what he loves.” Around the margins, perversity lingers, hidden but still seen: Joel’s recollection of having once seen “two grown men standing in an ugly little room kissing each other“, and Idobel’s beloved Uncle August, “the one that’s so afraid of girls he won’t look at one; he says I’m not a girl.”
If only we all had gay uncles like Randolph or August, I sighed, as I re-read Other Voices, Other Rooms – though that itself is probably the point. The Joels and Idobels and Randolphs of the world have always existed – it just took an artist of Capote’s insight and courage to show them to us. For all its ugliness and despair, I agree with Gerald Clarke that Other Voices, Other Rooms has a happy ending, in which a young queer accepts rather than denies his nature and moves towards a version of his life that he can survive.