Thursday, November 29, 2007

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

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


Meredith said...

Hey Rick,

About 9 years ago, I spent a summer reading everything Truman Capote wrote. I remember nothing whatsoever about the plot of Other Voices, Other Rooms, but I still remember with great clarity what it felt like to read his beautiful prose in that book. It was as if I was reading another language; I didn't know words could be strung together in such an evocative and beautiful way.

You should definitely read In Cold Blood. That one is definitely strong on plot AND prose, but I must admit that I savored Capote's words more in Other Voices, Other Rooms (even though In Cold Blood is clearly the better book). By the time he got to In Cold Blood, his work was much more polished, which is certainly a good thing, but I do love the way he wrote in Other Voices, Other Rooms.

His later work was a mess; I wouldn't bother with it if I were you.

Antonia said...

I have not everything by Capote, but it seems as if the one that you read is very similar to his "Grass Harp" which is infact a very lovely book, yes, plot is obviously not a strength, but the characters are so lovely one can forget all the rest.

SFP said...

Cousin Randolph is the unknown woman.

I read this one over the summer and loved it. Blogged about it here:

ricklibrarian said...

Meredith and Antonia,

Thanks for the recommendations.


Thanks. I don't know why I did not figure that out. It makes sense now that you say it.

alexandra said...

I've just finished reading this book and it drives me crazy! I don't understand.. I've read that the woman is Randolph, but it is also supposed to be about Joel's homosexuality as it is auto-biographical book and Truman was gay. But honestly, I don't see anything like that in this book in conection with Joel who, on the contrary, says that he might love Idabel. And the fact that she looks like a boy is not important as it is still a girl.

What do you think about this matter (homosexuality) in this book???


ricklibrarian said...


I don't think the book is about homosexuality. It might just be that a character is gay. It is hard to say really, as the book is so elusive.


Anonymous said...

At one point in the book, Randolph is doing impressions for Joel and he says he will do one more but Joel must promise not to laugh. Joel begins to laugh so Randolph tells him perhaps another time. It is assumed that Randolph was going to put on the costume that he wore in New Orleans, and in which he passed for being a woman. At the end of the book, we realize that the woman in the window is Randolph wearing the costume. As Joel crosses the threshold into manhood, he turns and goes to the house. This implies that he is going to Randolph and embracing the homosexuality of both Randolph and himself. Whether or not Capote meant that Joel and Randolph enter into a romantic relationship or not, only Capote knows. However, there was one sentence in the book that mentioned that Joel and Randolph were no really that far apart in age, and they are not related by blood. Capote also includes several scenes in Randolph expresses or demonstrates emotions of love and/or caring for Joel and in the narrative, Joel expresses that he cares for Randolph. He also shows his love for Randolph in the scene where he tells Randolph that everything will be alright remembering that was what Randolph said he wanted to hear. I don't see Joel as running toward the house at the end suddenly aware that he is in love with Randolph, but rather being pulled toward Randolph as his destiny and as the first man in a future that will hold much more than remaining with Randolph at the landing for the rest of his life. Of course everyone interprets what they read in a very different way. This is simply my interpretation.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention one other pivotal scene. When Joel and Randolph return to the landing at the end of the book, Joel realizes that Randolph knew that Aunt Ellen was coming to see Joel and he arranged for Joel to be elsewhere by lying to Joel about the need to visit the conjure man in the woods. Joel realizes that Randolph did this because he loves Joel and he doesn't want Joel to leave the landing. Randolph had deceived Joel Joel and we can tell that he feels horribly about having done so because he is basically a sniveling mess as they return home. It is in keeping with Randolph's character to know that he is doing something wrong, but due to his feelings for Joel, to be helpless to stop himself, and then berate himself for it afterward. He is ashamed of himself and slinks off to his room. Joel does not react with anger but realizes that coming from Randolph, as damaged as he is, this gesture of deception is also a grand expression of love. As you said, this does not mean that the book is about homosexuality, but I believe it is about relationships between some very damaged people and about Joel trying to find some sense of normalcy in the situation that he has found himself in after the death of his mother.

rohit said...

An enjoyable read Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote . loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.

ricklibrarian said...

Thanks for the compliment.