Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote, 1948

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by Truman Capote, 1948

Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote's first book, remained on the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks, a remarkable achievement for such an unconventional work. In its probing psychological insights into previously tabooed areas, the story was, in Capote's words, "an attempt to exorcise demons." Graced with lush descriptive language, it confirmed the young author's place at the forefront of post-World War II literature.

Other Voices, Other Rooms is an initiation story. Joel Knox, a troubled 13-year-old whose mother has died recently, is invited to live with his father on an old plantation called Skully's Landing. Struggling to form his adult identity, Joel still seeks "the far-away room," a world of his imagination, even though as he grows older he finds it more and more inaccessible. One of the characters in that room is the father he has never known—a father he imagines is courageous and strong. But the handsome imaginary man who buys his son a .22 rifle and hunts possum with him is not the pitiful invalid Joel finds at Skully's Landing.

Joel's initiation into adulthood is further complicated by adult deceptions. The invitation that brings him to the Landing is a ruse perpetrated by his father's second wife and her cousin Randolph. Joel tries to hang onto previously instilled values, but ultimately his initial instinct to reject the decadence of Skully's Landing is replaced by an acceptance of it.

Another complicating factor in Joel's passage to adulthood is his struggle with his sexual identity. Early in the story Radclif, the truck driver who takes Joel to Noon City, thinks the boy lacks masculinity and questions the flowery, dainty handwriting on the letter supposedly from Joel's father: "What the hell kind of man would write like that?" Later Joel futilely attempts to assert his manhood over a neighborhood tomboy, but it is she who takes his sword from him and vanquishes a water moccasin as she holds Joel safely behind her. Ultimately Joel cannot fill a conventional male role, and it is suggested that he only discovers his true identity when he accepts his homosexuality, for then "he knew who he was."

Although Capote denies being a regionalist, Other Voices, Other Rooms nevertheless bears a strong resemblance to writings of the southern Gothic tradition. He uses the American South's deteriorating plantation houses and ghost-haunted sense of a former life to evoke that brooding and terrifying atmosphere common to the Gothic novel. Each year the plantation house sinks several inches into the marsh, and to Joel the house emits "settling sighs of stone and board, as though the old rooms inhaled-exhaled constant wind." The sense of ruin and decay is illustrated by the garden, "a jumbled wreckage," and a burned wing of the house, only the pillars of which remain. Joel observes "luminous green logs that shine under the dark marsh water like drowned corpses." The very atmosphere seems to exude decadence and threatens to engulf the boy: "a sea of deepening green spread the sky like some queer wine."

A little over a decade before Other Voices, Other Rooms was published, Ellen Glasgow complained of writers such as Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner, who she felt overemphasized degeneracy and "fantastic abominations." According to William Van O'Connor, by preferring "weirdly distorted images" these writers challenged the "bland surfaces of bourgeois customs and habits" and created a new genre that blurred the division between the tragic and comic. Like Caldwell and Faulkner, Capote creates several grotesque characters as part of the southern ambience of his short work: the owner of R.V. Lacey's Princely Place with her single, antennalike hair growing from a facial mole; the gnomelike Jesus Fever, who, asleep at the reins, drives Joel to Skully's Landing; the congregation of town loafers that look "like a gang of desperadoes in a Western picture-show"; and Miss Wisteria, the love-thwarted carnival dwarf who weeps "to think little boys must grow tall."

With Cousin Randolph, however, Capote takes the grotesque character further than his predecessors. Although Randolph's affectations immediately qualify him as another of the grotesques filling Joel's view of the southern landscape, his importance in the boy's development transforms him from simply part of the bizarre scenery into a figure whom Joel eventually embraces for the love he has failed to find elsewhere.

Randolph's decadence complements the decadent setting. His world-weary languid manner, manicured toenails, "silver-tongued" flattery, and caustic sarcasm are reminiscent of Oscar Wilde. His bedroom, which he terms "a rather gaudy grave," is closed off from natural light. Eventually we learn that he is the mysterious person dressed like an eighteenth-century French countess standing in the plantation window, whose identity puzzles Joel. Whereas Faulkner and Caldwell might have created a bizarre character and even might have described the person with compassion, they would maintain a distance from him, just as Capote's protagonist does early in the story. But Capote's fiction differs from earlier works in that Joel eventually accepts and chooses to participate in the grotesque world, the world of "other voices, other rooms." His coming of age is sealed by his acceptance of the transvestite Randolph. Moreover, his decision is described in affirmative terms.

The relationship of Randolph and Joel clarifies one of the major themes of the story and of other Capote works: that "love, having no geography, knows no boundaries…. Any love is natural and beautiful that lies within a person's nature." Although there are numerous ways in which Joel is betrayed by the adult world—in particular by Randolph—at the end of the story the boy forgives the older man and accepts him in his most fantastic metamorphosis. Capote suggests what William Van O'Connor says is the propensity of the writer of the grotesque to find the sublime in "weirdly distorted images." Perhaps Joel accepts Randolph because of the older man's soul-baring story of his doomed love for the Mexican boxer, Pepe Alvarez, and his subsequent loneliness, with which Joel can certainly identify. Perhaps he accepts him because Randolph sits faithfully by the boy's bedside during a long illness. At any rate Randolph becomes the answer to Joel's prayer, "God, let me be loved."

Other Voices, Other Rooms is powered by Capote's intense private vision. In identifying influences on this particular piece of short fiction, Capote himself stressed that "the real progenitor was my difficult, subterranean self." The young author's life as an unwanted child who eventually affirmed his homosexuality clearly informs Other Voices, Other Rooms. As he said of it, "The book set me free."

—William L. Howard

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Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote, 1948

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