Review: Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

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This is my 2nd time reading this, and my 2nd read for #DiverseAThon. However, last time I read this, I had no idea what a gay person was. I didn’t get it at alllll. I mean, at allll! I was so confused. There are still a lot of very vague things in this book.

5 out of 5 Transformative Stars

People under the impression the discussion of gender and sexuality is a new thing are so wrong. And this book wasn’t some underground gem that’s simmered on the back burner, like so much LGBTQ fiction. It makes you wonder if we’ve gone backward, because this was a huge hit when it was published in 1948, vaulting Truman Capote into the stratosphere. I have loved Truman Capote since the 90’s, when I finally read In Cold Blood and The Grass Harp, but I didn’t re-read this (which I read in high school – just for pleasure, not for class.) What a mistake. I’ve read his other books, but I think this one has taken over pride of place as my favorite. I wish I had reread it ages ago.

I don’t even know where to go with this so I will try and make sense of my feelings. First of all, if you are going to have a coming of age story, you must have either an orphaned or abandoned child, and Joel Knox is both. His father’s exit was first and inexplicable. No idea why he disappeared from his mom’s life. Then his mom dies and out of nowhere, his father writes his aunt to assure he that he can give the boy a healthy, wholesome home. In order to get there, Joel has to get to Noon City, where ‘arrangements’ have been made. Once he gets there, he has to scour the city before he finds the old man, Jesus Fever, who is supposed to take him out to The Landin’, as it’s called, half asleep behind a stable. I wonder what would have happened if Joel never found him? Would he have stayed there all night? Would he just have gone home and figured the kid never showed up?

Once Joel finally makes it there, after a mythical interlude with a pair of twins about as opposite as twins can be, he wakes up in the morning to find his stepmother, Miss Amy, hunting a blue jay that’s flown in through the window with a fire poker. What a welcome. The whole house seems like a dream, and the things that happen in it are misty and confusing. First, there is no mention of his father. He asks to see him and is told his father is ill. Miss Amy will see if he can have a visitor. And then there are the tennis balls that come down the stairs. Then there is Amy’s asthmatic and flamboyant cousin Randolph.

Don’t you think if your parent was paralyzed, you’d be told BEFORE you came to live with him? The adults who are to take care of him introduce this situation in the worst way. There’s no explanation, no talking, Joel walks in and sees this bedbound man in the bed and is told this is his father and this is the way things are. There’s almost a “Now don’t you wish you hadn’t asked? You wanted to see him and here he is. Don’t you wish you had just pretended he didn’t exist?” This is such a southern thing. I don’t know how to explain it, but there is the putting off or ignoring of things unpleasant. They like to pretend it doesn’t exist. I speak of this from experience. It’s like we won’t talk about it, everyone knows it, and if you make me face it, I’m going to make it as unpleasant as possible. And there is a lot of unpleasantness simmering in this house.

The prose in this is gorgeous and dreamy, and often difficult. There’s not much of a plot, it seems like nearly everything that happens happened in the past. What makes this book is the characters.

The first time Joel meets Florabel and Idabel, it’s on the trip to the Landin’. Then he realizes he’d met Idabel in town, being thrown out of the cafe. The two girls couldn’t be more different. Florabel is feminine and pretty, and Idabel is a tomboy. She tells him they can be friends but wants him to treat her as if they were brothers. A couple times she says she wishes she was a boy. Every time we meet her, someone’s giving her crap for how she dresses and acts. They call her unnatural, that she’s not “properly feminine”. She’s loud and raucous and falls in love with a little person working in the freak show of the traveling circus. Joel is confused and jealous. I don’t think he can think of her as an equal – he is always thinking of protecting her in spite of herself, and thinking of her as a love interest. But she doesn’t really arouse those feelings in him – he’s almost pointing out that he should feel them.

Randolph is probably the strongest and most influential character. At times, he’s cruel and snarky. He pretends to care nothing about anything, at other times, he clasps Joel’s hand and begs him to try and like him. He wears makeup (talcum and rouge) and dresses in kimonos. One can only imagine what the people of Noon City and the people at the cafe who threw Idabel out for wearing shorts and men’s shirts would have to say about him. At times he seems in charge, at times he is totally helpless. It’s clear that he drinks too much for his condition (as an asthmatic). He’s often ill and Amy has to care for him.

The cook, Missouri, or Zoo as she prefers to be called, is Jesus Fever’s granddaughter. She came to take care of him some 13 years before, but he hasn’t died yet. All she wants is to get away. She lives in fear of her ex husband escaping the chain gang and returning to finish the job he started. He’s there because he tried to kill her. She becomes Joel’s first friend at the Landing, listening to him and being kind, but she’s not any better than the other two, really. She won’t talk to him about his father, it’s not her business. But what I love about her is that she’s like John Wayne toilet paper. She don’t shit offa nobody, even Miss Amy, who still has the attitude that black people need to be in their place. A little disappointed that Capote had to play the rape card in this. It’s your traditional way of keeping women down or using it as a metaphor for struggle. I mean, she’d already almost been killed by her husband. Isn’t that enough traditional violence against women? Why pile rape on top of it?

Slight spoilers ahead, but if you’ve read anything about what this novel is about, you probably knew these things going in.

The queer lady in the window. This is how she is described to us when we first see her. Joel sees her through the ripples of the glaze and the glare of trees, beckoning him. He’s convinced she’s there. The first thing she reminds him of is his own distorted reflection. Mirror metaphors abound in this, often drawing parallels between Randolph and Joel. Joel is always described in feminine metaphors: pretty rather than handsome, he has a soprano voice, is sensitive and delicate. Zoo is always after him about being manly. I wondered if some of it was outdated gender role stuff, and Capote, as a gay man, pointing out what we now consider toxic gender stereotypes – that if a man is gay he isn’t a man. The woman in the window is most likely Randolph dressed as a woman. But what is she beckoning Joel for? Is it towards acceptance of himself (meaning Joel), acceptance of Randolph, or something sexual? Amy and Randolph mock him when he talks about the lady at first, but Randolph later tells Joel that he knows the lady, but  to Randolph, she has always been a ghost. Randolph also tells Joel how he dressed up as woman for a costume party and found himself. Randolph tells him a lot of stuff…

In a way, this is one of the most depressing coming of age stories I’ve ever read. Toward the end, after a lot of trauma (don’t want to spoil it) Joel seems to do the child thing of sticking his fingers in his ears and going “nyah nyah nyah” – kinda like the southern thing all over again – uncomfortable stuff has happened but I’ve dug a little hole here in the sand and I’m going to go into it and stay there because it’s grown comfortable. I know at the end, there is this big reveal that is interpreted as Joel accepting himself as a gay man, but it seemed to me like he was giving up. That’s how it felt. Hiding himself away, like Randolph has and ignoring the horrible things happening out in the world.

It was a beautiful read, I mean the prose is like honey and cornflakes… anyone eat that as a kid? Atmospheric and beautiful, but sad and hard. I’m so glad I reread it.

 

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