Bird-killing stepmothers, cross-dressing cousins wearing Mardi Gras costumes, pedophilic circus performers, scrappy tomboys and spookily hidden-away fathers: as orphan Joel Harrison Knox learns, there's never a dull moment at Skully's Landing.
Or in Other Voices, Other Rooms, for that matter. This book makes American Horror Story's Southern towns look positively sleepy. It makes Game of Thrones' family secrets look banal. And, oh yeah: its prose rivals Faulkner for intense Southern Gothic brilliance and Modernist masters like Virginia Woolf for sheer beauty.
Truman Capote's debut novel, published when he was only 23 years old in 1948, was an immediate smash hit. And once you pick it up you'll see why. The book is fascinating and totally sordid, filled with incredible characters that hide a creepily mysterious family secret.
The novel tells the story of thirteen-year-old Joel's journey from New Orleans to his long-lost father's home in the Deep South and the eccentric characters that will populate his life from then on. It's a coming of age story, a coming out story, and also just a super addictive read. The visions of decadent plantations, ex-slaves, and eccentric relatives create an unmatched ambience. You'll either be compelled to buy one-way ticket to tour the bayou… or compelled to run screaming in the other direction.
Truman Capote was already a bright young thing on the New York literary scene (he was in his early, early twenties, which is the literary equivalent of becoming as a rock star at age fifteen) when he published Other Voices, Other Rooms. He was also a sexy young thing, and he (in)famously worked that to his advantage in his author pic. Check it out.
Dang, right? The come-hither glance caused all sorts of a ruckus in prim n' proper 1940's circles, especially since it appeared on the dust jacket of a novel that deals (subtly) with a young man embracing his homosexuality.
And it's a huge testament to the awesomeness of this novel that despite it containing a young character coming out (cue collective 1940's pearl-clutching) and this uber-sultry photo, Other Voices, Other Rooms still climbed the bestseller list faster than a Mardi Gras fete full of hungry party people can devour a King Cake.
The Supreme Court is protecting same-sex marriage and bathroom signs all over the place are getting makeovers (goodbye, weird triangle dress lady!). On TV, Frank Underwood is snogging with dudes and Piper Chapman is lovin' the ladeez and the world took a collective gasp when everyone's favorite bisexual, Oberyn Martell… nope—we hate spoilers more than Stromae hates rigid gender norms.
But the new revolution in the acceptance of a variety gender expressions and sexualities has been a long time coming. It ain't news that for many years gay people like Truman Capote were marginalized, and the right to same-sex marriage would have seemed laughable in 1948 when Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms was published.
That's why Capote's bold portraits of a little girl who refuses to wear dresses, a man who feels prettier in makeup and kimonos, and a teenage boy learning to embrace his sexual identity was groundbreaking.
We'll say it again. This was 1948. Just to put it in perspective, that was only twenty years after women were granted the right to vote. It was twenty years before the Stonewall Riots, when the Gay Rights Movement is said to have truly begun. It was a different era, one that was ushering in that conformist-to-end-all-conformity decade: the June and Ward Cleaver dystopia of the 1950's. And yet, Other Voices, Other Rooms was a massive success.
Why? Well, apart from the fact that the prose is brilliant and the author photo was steamy, it struck a chord (or a nerve, depending on who was reading) with audiences. Although as a culture we're only now beginning to openly discuss gender fluidity and the difference between gender and anatomy, and only just beginning to be a-okay with the LGBTQ community, Other Voices, Other Rooms reminds us of two things.
It reminds us of the dark past of repression, and, more importantly, it reminds us that all the gender identity and sexual identity issues we tend to think of as super-current have actually been happening all around us, since forever. Even in Skully's Landing, Mississippi.
Can I DVR this novel?
PBS has got you covered with a nice little lesson on Capote, an American master.
An excerpt from Other Voices, Other Rooms. But watch out, it's addictive.
C'est la vie.
Find out all about Capote's life from the good folks at Biography.
Fifty Years Later
Capote's first novel was made into a movie in the 90s.
Who's that Guy?
A biopic about the author's life.
Better Late than Never?
Time magazine apologizes for having been uncomfortable with Capote's sexuality
Capote v. Brando
The author of Other Voices, Other Rooms interviews another figure tied artistically to New Orleans: Marlon Brando.
Scenes from the South
Some clips from the film version of Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Truman and Love
See what the author has to say to David Frost about love and sex.
I Don't Want to Come of Age!
An NPR story on how Other Voices, Other Rooms can make you feel like a kid again.
A nice amateur audio version of the novel.
Signed by the Author
The novel in all its glory.
Some people say this seductive pose was what really sold the book.