The first book of Truman Capote’s that I read was not, as you might suspect, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but rather In Cold Blood, a groundbreaking work of literary nonfiction and arguably Capote’s finest effort. I loved it so much that, in a failed bid to secure admission to a Ph.D. program at one of the Holy Trinity Ivies, I once even wrote a lengthy scholarly paper on the book.
I’ve since read Breakfast at Tiffany’s (like any girl worth her salt, the movie is one of my favorites, but the book is very different—not necessarily better than the movie, but more like a different story altogether) and the several short stories contained therein (“A Christmas Memory” is possibly the best short story I’ve ever read). Next up was Other Voices, Other Rooms, which had been sitting on my nightstand for several months after I received it as a gift, and I finally got around to reading it last month.
Truman Capote is one of my literary idols. He mastered the art of writing prose that is eloquent and vivid but also clean and clear and tightly woven. His writing is poetic without buckling beneath its own weight. I saw all of that in In Cold Blood, which was published in 1966 when Capote was 42 and had already established himself as a great American writer. So I was curious how Other Voices, Other Rooms (which was published in 1948 when he was just 23) would stack up.
First off, just let me reiterate that Truman Capote was 23 when he wrote this book. As an aspiring writer of a certain age who has published exactly zero books, reading that interesting little fact feels a bit like taking a bullet. Since I’ve read some of his later writing, I can tell that his voice is decidedly younger in Other Voices, Other Rooms, but he was still worlds more mature and insightful than most 23-year-olds (at least today’s 23-year-olds). However, it’s worth noting that the book is semi-autobiographical, and if Capote lived through some of the same things his young protagonist lived through, that would help explain the depth of emotion and sagacity that comes through even in his earliest works.
Other Voices, Other Rooms is the story of Joel Harrison Knox, a 13-year-old boy from New Orleans who is sent to live with his father in Mississippi after his mother passes away. The sensitive and naïve (but admirably resilient and resourceful) boy makes the strange journey by himself and arrives at his new home, eager to see the father he’s never met, only to be greeted by a jarringly nervous and severe stepmother, Amy Skully, who immediately shows him to his musty, unlit room in an isolated and dilapidated mansion.
Joel is scarcely allowed to mention his father, let alone see him, and the mystery nags at him. But he does form tentative friendships with the cook and Amy’s eccentric, semi-transvestite cousin Randolph. He is also befriended by a tomboy named Idabel who lives nearby (interesting side note: Truman Capote was friends with Harper Lee as a child and they both served as a source of inspiration for one another; the character of Idabel is based on Capote’s memories of Lee, and Lee based the character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird on Capote). As Joel searches for the truth about his father while struggling to navigate the macabre new world he’s come to inhabit, he learns the painful lessons that will begin his metamorphosis from child to adult.
Other Voices, Other Rooms is categorized as a Southern Gothic novel and, though I must confess that To Kill a Mockingbird is the only other book of that genre that I’ve read, I think Capote beautifully captured the aura of the decaying, sinister South of the early 20th century. The spectral image of a crazed woman haunts and beckons Joel from an upstairs window. The house he lives in is crumbling around him as its walls seem to whisper of refined, genteel, and more opulent times gone by. The dark phantom of slavery is ever in the offing. His stepmother and her strange cousin are painted as living ghosts, self-condemned to the confines of a derelict plantation in a twisted sort of purgatory. And death—the very thing Joel was meant to escape—seems to be lurking in every shadow, as heavy and stifling and unavoidable as the thick summer air. In the end, as in life, there are few satisfying answers, and Joel comes away with little more than the realization that he can only rely on himself.
TLDNR: If you’re looking for the whimsical plot line and charmed nuances of Capote’s Holly Golightly, you won’t find them in Other Voices, Other Rooms. But what you will find is (to borrow from Paul Varjak in the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s) the “sensitive, intensely felt, promising prose” of a brilliant young writer at the dawn of a sparkling career.