But the walls of Joel’s room were too thick for Amy’s voice to penetrate. Now for a long time he’d been unable to find the far-away room; always it had been difficult, but never so hard as in the last year. -From Other Voices Other Rooms, page 83-
Truman Capote’s first novel is gothic and mysterious. Thirteen year old Joel Knox (I couldn’t help making the connection between Joel’s last name and the saying: ‘The school of hard knocks.’) is sent to live with a father he has never met, deep in the south and among bizarre people. Joel travels alone, arriving in the town of Noon City where he is eventually retrieved by an elderly black man named Jesus Fever. Together they travel the gloomy, dark night road behind the stubborn mule John Brown, until they reach Skully’s Landing – the home of Joel’s father.
The first half of the novel introduces most of the main characters – from Idabel (the strange little girl who dresses like a boy) to Amy (Joel’s stepmother who likes to kill birds) to cousin Randolph (the effeminate relative with a dark history) to the likable Zoo (the black servant with an angry red scar slashed across her throat). Joel does not meet his father immediately, and when he does it is a shocking discovery. This part of the story engaged me with its gothic images, ghostly sightings and vivid dialogue. Capote’s description of Skully’s Landing was sharp and creepy:
A dormer window of frost glass illuminated the long top-floor hall with the kind of pearly light that drenches a room when rain is falling. The wallpaper had once, you could tell, been blood red, but now was faded to a mural of crimson blisters and maplike stains. -From Other Voices Other Rooms, page 50-
But as the book passes the midway point, it begins to waver and become nearly impossible to comprehend. The characters warp into strange and frightening people. Cousin Randolph spends a lot of time telling Joel stories that seem to have layers and layers of meaning. A lesbian midget shows signs of being a pedophile. A long night, involving a cottonmouth snake and a carnival ride, ends with an unexplained illness. And I began to wonder whether Capote was dropping acid while he wrote. The imagery is circular, dreamlike and unconnected to the story line.
I like gothic novels with creepy story lines and suspense. Other Voices Other Rooms had the potential, with Capote’s gift of stringing words together, to be a breathtaking work…but it fell short for me. It was too convoluted and confusing. Reviews and analysis I have read about the novel suggest it is a story about coming of age – but, it is a rough ride…and seemed to be more of a look through the pages of an abnormal psychology text.
I had a hard time rating this one. Capote’s prose is sometimes beautiful – he is an exacting writer – yet the plot was too weird for my liking. I don’t know many (if any) readers to whom I could recommend this one.