In the follow-up to Justin Torres’s 2011 We the Animals, a story of queer kinship and lineage is forged upon absence and erasure.
Blackouts, by Justin Torres, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 305 pages, $30
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Justin Torres’s Blackouts is that marvelous thing: a book at once steadily, exuberantly ambitious and an unstinting pleasure to read. The novel’s ambition is in its historical sweep and purposeful queering of the past, its formal surprises and structural dexterity. The pleasure is in the teasing sweetness between the two characters whose voices make the story, the scavenger hunt their many references send us on, and the carefully tuned pitch and precision of Torres’s sentences. The long-awaited follow-up to his acclaimed debut, Blackouts not only cements Torres’s status as one of our finest writers, it shows him to be, also, among our most generous.
It’s been twelve years since the release of that first book. We the Animals is a close, exquisitely wrought study of a mixed-race, intercultural family (white and Puerto Rican) struggling to get by in rural upstate New York—as seen through the eyes of its youngest, tenderest child. Viewing his youth through a doubled lens of painfully bright love and aching hurt, Torres’s unnamed, retrospective narrator longs for the uncomplicated belonging he had before his queerness led to his expulsion. We leave him in his late teens, institutionalized by his parents.
Blackouts, which is not strictly a sequel but can be read as a continuation of that story, trades in the familial focus of its predecessor for an exploration of queer kinship and cultural inheritance. Now twenty-seven, a writer who scrapes by on shift work and sex work, Torres’s narrator has traveled west, impelled to seek out an older man named Juan Gay, whom he had met a decade earlier when both were inpatients on a psychiatric ward. Juan, too, is queer and Puerto Rican, and in him, the narrator saw something of what he might aspire to become. “Juan transcended what I thought I knew about sissies,” he reflects. “When he spoke, he spoke in allusion, literarily . . . [he] wanted me to understand how little I knew about myself, that I was missing out on something grand: a subversive, variant culture; an inheritance.”
Now, the narrator finds Juan at a vaguely delineated desert residence known as “the Palace,” a former hotel, he thinks, turned into a home for elders. He stays with Juan in his room, sneaking in after visiting hours each night, and promises to finish what Juan, who is dying, can’t: some sort of “grand project.” Juan won’t say much more about it (yet); first, he wants to hear from the narrator. “Dígame,” Juan directs. Each night, in the dark, Juan lures the narrator into something like a confessional trance, steering him into sharing stories about his father, his mother (“make it terrible”), his recent breakup (“turn me on”).
Erudite, affectionate, wryly tart, Juan becomes the narrator’s mentor, queer father figure, romantic friend, therapist, confessor, home. He is the beat and breath of the book, and also a device, in that he’s the source of many of the novel’s intertextual references. Dropping quotes liberally, Juan bequeaths to the narrator a vast cultural archive that includes figures like Puerto Rican playwright Miguel Piñero, Black American writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins, and Colombian American writer Jaime Manrique. Magnifying Juan’s generosity of knowledge, the narrator expands on these and other references through a “Blinkered Endnotes” appendix that lets us know, for example, that his promise to Juan mirrors the one that launches Juan Rulfo’s influential Pedro Páramo. Of all these sources, Argentine author Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman has primacy. Like that novel, Blackouts is rendered primarily in dialogue between two men largely confined to one room (in Puig’s, it’s a jail cell), where they exchange stories that pull the world inside these walls.
As the dialogue unfolds, we come to understand that the book we’re reading is the fulfillment of the narrator’s promise. Juan’s “grand project” involves a file folder stuffed with photographs, clippings, and notes; a mysterious someone named Jan Gay; and two volumes titled Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns (1941), the pages of which have largely been blacked out, “erased into little poems and observations.” The tale Juan wants told is Jan’s. Though Sex Variants began with her research as a queer insider, Jan was eventually removed from the project after a committee of “experts” absorbed her work. They then smeared over it a worldview as pathologizing as everything Jan wanted to correct.
The histories Blackouts resuscitates are so remarkable it’s a shock how little is made up (although much has been embellished, Torres tells us in his “A Sort of Postface” at the end). Jan Gay did, in fact, helm the Sex Variants project before it was yanked out of her hands; she was also a lesbian nudist (best known for her memoir On Going Naked) who collaborated with her (unofficial) wife, the illustrator Zhenya Gay, on a great many children’s books whose narratives glimmer with coded queer narratives (“Elephant begs, Please come out, do”). Torres’s brief account of their lives involves cameos from Andy Warhol, Emma Goldman, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Edna Thomas.
Blackouts spins Jan’s story together with Juan’s and the protagonist’s. Photographs and film stills, ostensibly from Juan’s file folder, are pasted into the text, as well as some of the blacked-out pages from the Sex Variants volumes. These poetic erasures are just one of the ways that blackouts figure into the narrative. The historical absences they talk back to are another. Then there’s the narrator’s lapses in time, when his mind goes blank and he loses the present—Juan links these, archly, to what has been known as “Puerto Rican Syndrome.” Another nonfictional reference: this xenophobic diagnostic category was constructed by white psychologists in the 1950s to explain the symptoms US military doctors observed in Puerto Rican soldiers responding to traumatic contexts—temporary loss of consciousness often accompanied by hyperventilation, convulsive movements, and physical violence to self or others. As Juan notes, the category’s existence more aptly explains white hysteria (as he puts it, “colonizer syndrome”) over increased Puerto Rican presence in the US.
Torres has said he “wanted this to be a seamful book,” and it is: the seams are the art of it, the bold way he has stitched it together. There’s a wink in the text’s constructed-ness, the too-perfectness of this Juan, this relationship, and the fully imagined, made-up films they narrate to each other (another nod to Puig). I kept waiting for the fake-out—a reference I couldn’t track down outside the container of the book. But Torres isn’t playing that game. Refusing bare realism in favor of a sharpened, glittering, “seamful” aestheticism, he’s not so much “fictionalizing” as he is using the bend and sway of fiction to refashion history into something with a closer, queerer fit. For this counternarrative centering telling and exchange, the loose threads are another act of generosity, inviting readers to take up the tale from here.
Megan Milks is the author of the novel Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body, finalist for a 2022 Lambda Literary Award, and Slug and Other Stories, both published by Feminist Press.