Regular readers of this blog are aware of my fondness for Truman Capote’s work. I can’t say it enough: the man was a literary genius. He spun sentences with such skill and deftness that one couldn’t possibly improve upon them. His prose is the most effective example I’ve read of painting pictures with words. Sample this description of a nameless Alabama place:
“…this is lonesome country; and here in the swamplike hollows where tiger lilies bloom the size of a man’s head, there are luminous green logs that shine under the dark marsh water like drowned corpses; often the only movement on the landscape is winter smoke winding out the chimney of some sorry-looking farmhouse, or a wing-stiffened bird, silent and arrow-eyed, circling over the black deserted pinewoods.”
This is from the opening paragraph of Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote’s first published novel. It tells us the story of 12 year old Joel Knox, who sets off from New Orleans after the death of his mother, to go and live with his father at Skully’s Landing, in Alabama. His father had abandoned him at birth and this would be the first time that two are meeting. Only, other people, who are not his father, await little Joel as he arrives at the decaying mansion: the sullen, jittery stepmother Amy, the narcissistic and flamboyant Cousin Randolph, the paranoid servant Zoo who dreams of escaping to Washington DC and her grandfather Jesus Fever. Joel doesn’t meet his father until halfway through the book, and then he discovers that the father he had hoped would support him, needs taking care of himself. Edward R. Sansom, Joel’s father, is now paralyzed and cannot communicate with anyone except by rolling a red ball on the floor to get their attention.
It’s clear that Joel has arrived in a place where all that’s left is ruin and broken dreams. This is where the significance of the passage that I quoted becomes clear. It sets the tone for the rest of the book: that “lonesome country” with its “dark marsh water” and “black deserted pinewoods” prepares us to enter a landscape that reflects the deep melancholy that will mark Joel’s new life. His father is an invalid, his stepmother is peculiar and Randolph wears his depression and dissipation like a cloak. It’s a strange place and the only person who manages to enliven life for Joel is the local tomboy, Idabel Thompkins. Idabel, who develops a bit of a crush on our forlorn hero, is wild, loud and prickly. Not exactly hug and kiss material,as Joel finds out, much to his dismay. But she is the only bright spot on the horizon for him; she offers him a chance to escape the dull misery of life at Skully’s Landing and Joel grabs at it, only to find out that it’s not so easy to let go of one life and start a new one.
Despite the way Joel gets sucked back into life at Skully’s Landing, the novel is also about renewals and rebirth. More specifically, it’s about accepting oneself and one’s circumstances, as Joel does at the end of the novel. One popular interpretation of the novel has it that it’s a ‘coming-out’ story: in the final scene, when Joel goes to join the mysterious lady in the window (who we now know is Randolph in drag), he’s finally accepting, and celebrating, his own homosexuality – just like a young Capote once did.
In fact, most readers agree that Joel was just a stand-in for Capote himself, since the novel has strong auto-biographical elements. Like Joel, Capote was a lonely little boy who barely knew his parents and was raised mostly by relative. In fact, Capote himself admitted that the major theme of the novel was a son’s search for his father.
To me, however, it seems like Other Voices, Other Rooms is about finding love and acceptance in the most forbidding of places. Joel finds out that he does belong in Skully’s Landing, after all, and that there are people here who care about him. He is no longer a poor little orphan boy, but a mature young man now, who is confident enough in himself to let his guard down finally and let people get close to him. We realize that the difficult part for Joel was not finding love, but to let himself be loved. The most forbidding place, then, was Joel’s own heart. And once he found acceptance for himself there, he found acceptance elsewhere.