Although I’m a voracious and voluminous reader, I’d never read anything by Truman Capote. Other Voices, Other Rooms is his first book, written in 1948. Set in the rural South, it paints a strange-to-my-eyes picture of a world that passed and hopefully, is gone. I understand this book was semi-autobiographical, and sure that it was scandalous in its time.
I found myself captivated, however. Capote’s writing style is lush and descriptive, peppered with unusual sentence length and punctuation. I found myself rereading certain phrases which had the richness of caramel melting on the tongue. THIS is literature, I kept thinking. At the end of the book I had many questions.
I came away from it thinking that I was missing something, that I needed a discussion group or an English teacher to guide me through what I read. Maybe it was the time-bound language, the context of the story and my unfamiliarity with that place’s history, the juxtaposition of whites and Negroes, superstition and youthfulness, or the vague sexualization of the scenes that leave me feeling a murkiness when I tried to parse what I read.
What an odd opening for today’s reader: Joel Knox lost his mother who was estranged/divorced from his father. “Orphaned” and staying with a family friend (aunt?), a letter arrives from the father and prompts the friend to send him alone from New Orleans, a cosmopolitan city, to a place so rural that there is no transportation available. He catches a ride with a worker from the turpentine factory and is deposited in Noon City, which is hardly a city, and is more like a one-street town. After some time, Joel locates a ancient Negro man, Jesus Fever, with a mule who can take him to the family estate. Already the reader is thrown into a world that is very different from modernity.
The characters are exaggerated and mysterious. Joel comes to live in a home that doesn’t feel like a home. Surrounded with situational mysteries, the people he meets do not clarify the situation he is in. Idabel and Florabel, the twins who are a tomboy and a flirtatious belle, live somewhere in the swamp. The tension between Joel and Idabel is palpable and in a way, the two ends of a see-saw, going up and down. The adults Joel lives with, Miss Amy, his erstwhile step-mother, and her effeminate cousin Randolph, are mysterious and vague, and provide no guidance for the boy. Joel does not learn that his father, Mr. Edward R. Sansom, is bedridden and paralyzed until some time after he arrives. It is only much later that he suspects his father could not have written the letter summoning him. Joel feels closest to the servant Missouri Fever (Zoo), Jesus Fever’s granddaughter. Zoo is scarred by her former husband, Keg Brown, and relies on folk charms, religion, and superstition to protect her. Background characters include a Negro population who are voiced in dialect, and are distinct from the white inhabitants of the town. An inanimate character, their home, Sully’s Landing, sets the mood, too, being ancient, damaged, sinking into the ground, and having no indoor plumbing or electricity.
Like I said before, Truman Capote’s writing is lush and he creates vibrant pictures allowing the reader to peek into a world, feel the heat, and the mosquitos biting.
I felt a bit like Joel, exploring the unknown wilds of a new land. Every action had overtones and meaning he simply didn’t know at first. Only the sheen of manners and a deep desire for love and relationships kept him out of trouble and allowed him to navigate in this new scene. Is he naive? I think so. Is the situation unfathomable to him? It sure was to me! The undescribed illness that keeps him comatose (?) and bedridden for a few months in the fall creates a dependency upon Randolph, and that relationship is full of overtones I’m not sure I’m reading right. I felt restless at the end, unfulfilled.
I enjoyed the visit to this world. I don’t enjoy feeling like there’s something I’m missing, however. What am I missing in context having read it 70 years after its publishing, having grown up in modern cities, and after the Civil Rights movement. I’m certain to follow up by looking for literary critiques, both contemporaneous and modern, on this work.