Other Voices, Other Rooms ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Truman Capote (1925-1984) is one of those twentieth century American writers whose life nearly overshadows his work. In the 1960s and ‘70s he became a media celebrity and a New York fixture of the jet-setting social scene. He counted as his friends politicians, actors, artists, entertainers, and other writers (to whom he wasn’t always very charitable). He was known for his fey wit, his eccentricity, and his alcoholism, which eventually ended his life prematurely at age fifty-nine.
He was only twenty-three or so when he published his famous coming-of-age novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. It is a floridly descriptive account of an odd thirteen-year-old boy named Joel Harrison Knox (Capote himself). Joel lives with eccentric relatives in New Orleans in, it is to be supposed, the 1940s. When his mother dies, his New Orleans guardian receives a letter from his father (supposedly), inviting Joel to come and live with him in another (unidentified) Southern state.
The place that Joel goes to live is called Skullys Landing, or simply “the Landing.” It is an old house without electricity on the edge of a swamp. It seems the swamp is reclaiming the house; it is slowly sinking (four inches last year). It is the perfect Southern Gothic setting.
The residents of the Landing are—you guessed it!—even more eccentric than the relatives Joel left behind in New Orleans. There’s Zoo, the black girl in her twenties who keeps house for the family. She has a scar on her neck where a bad man tried to slit her throat. She lives in fear that the man will escape from jail and finish the job. Zoo is kind to Joel, so the two of them become friends. Miss Amy is Joel’s stepmother; she is married to Joel’s father and is something of a nonentity. And then there’s flamboyant, fluttery, kimono-wearing Cousin Randolph. He apparently owns the Landing. He talks a lot about the past in flowery language because his present life is that of a shut-in.
But what of Joel’s father? Why is everybody being so mysterious about him? It takes a while for Joel to unravel the mystery of his father. The father does indeed exist but he’s a helpless invalid. (He didn’t write the letter inviting Joel to come and live with him; it was written by Randolph.)
In a long monologue (soliloquy?), Randolph tells the sordid story of the boxer Pepe Alvarez, a woman whom Randolph claimed to be in love with named Delores, Randolph himself, Joel’s father, Miss Amy, and how they all arrived at the point where they are now.
Joel meets other colorful characters while he’s living at the Landing: the rough-and-tumble, acid-tongued tomboy Idabel Thompkins, with whom he plans to run away; the black midget man over a hundred years old named Jesus Fever (he’s Zoo’s grandfather or something); Miss Wisteria, the vivacious, midget circus performer with whom Idabel becomes infatuated.
Other Voices, Other Rooms was a literary sensation when it was first published in 1948, mostly because Truman Capote was only twenty-three years old, it was his first novel and it launched his literary career. It is an essential work in the canon of twentieth century American fiction, not to be missed.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp