Since seeing the films Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006), I have planned to read something by Truman Capote. The obvious choice would have been to read In Cold Blood, which Bonnie and others recommended, but I planned to go for lesser works first. I thought about reading some short stories, but I never followed through. Then, back in October, I found a cheap paperback of his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms at a book sale at the Iowa City Public Library. We bought it, and I started it while flying from San Angelo to Chicago via Dallas and Minneapolis. It certainly made a long day much shorter.
Capote's novel draws the reader into a strange world full of unusual characters right away. Twelve or thirteen year old Joel Knox is trying to get a ride to rural Noon City (in one of the southern states) from a trucker. He is bound for an old plantation called Skully's Landing where his father, whom he has never met, has invited him. The house and its inhabitants prove to be mysterious.
For about half the novel, I thought that it was a mystery. Why was Joel never able to actually see his father? Who was the woman he saw beckoning from a window? Why was he invited? I thought the answers to these questions would be cleverly revealed. Well, I never found the answers (maybe they were there), but the father was nominally present in the second half as if he had always been there. The issue of the unknown woman was dropped. I was confused.
Plot is not the strength of this book. In fact, it may be anti-plot. Like real life, something different happens every day and little is ever resolved. The reader is a witness. The strength is the descriptive prose. The reader can almost feel the heat and the dust, smell the sour beer, see the squalor, hear the flies buzzing.
What is the reader to make of it all? The easy conclusion is that Joel is a reflection of Capote's youth. His tomboy friend Idabel Thompkins is Harper Lee. They are outcasts of a society that is not worth joining. Still, no matter how much they protest, they do need some form of acceptance.
Other Voices, Other Rooms is a book that will appeal to readers who do not insist on nicely tidy stories. If you can get a group to read it, it is certainly worth discussing, if only to sort it all out.
Capote, Truman. Other Voices, Other Rooms. Vintage Books, 1994. ISBN o679745645