A young man, wearing nothing but a flat cap and work boots, reclines on a table, seductively dangling his limbs off the edge while his torso supports a hefty, open book. An older, elegantly suited man leans over the table, though it’s hard to tell whether he’s examining the book or the body underneath, since both his and the younger man’s eyes are blacked out. This image faces the first page of Justin Torres’s second novel, Blackouts; as we learn later on, it’s a redaction of an Arthur Tress photograph, one of several surreal scenes Tress staged in the ruins of the cruisy Christopher Street Piers in the 1970s. Reflecting on this series of so-called “blue-collar fantasies,” the narrator wonders “if Tress meant the fantasy belonged to the older man in the suit, a fantasy of ownership perhaps, or whether the implication is that the fantasy belongs to the young man, the blue-collar man, who wishes to be made naked, opened, and read.”
This double-edged fantasy animates the central relationship in Blackouts. The twenty-seven-year-old narrator has come to a remote, deserted building called the Palace, where he cares for a much older, dying man named Juan Gay, whom the narrator met a decade earlier when they were patients at a mental hospital. (Readers may recall that Torres’s debut, We the Animals, ends with the teenage narrator’s hospitalization, and Blackouts plays—in clever, surprising ways I won’t spoil here—with the continuities between these two books as well as the parallels between Torres’s fiction and his life). Now Juan has tasked the narrator with completing a “grand project” involving Juan’s collection of enigmatic texts and images, including a heavily blacked-out copy of Jan Gay’s two-volume book Sex Variants, an early twentieth-century “study of homosexual patterns.” “Right away,” the narrator says, “I felt the magnetism, the mystery of these books; a work of intense observation transformed into a work of erasure. And I wondered about Juan’s connection to Miss Jan Gay. . . . But once I arrived, and once the promise to continue the work had been extracted, Juan seemed to lose interest in the books himself.”
The two men instead pass much of the time telling stories—of their respective youths, their families, their lovers, the queer ancestors who haunt them (including Jan Gay, a real, revolutionary, but largely forgotten sexologist). In its dialogic form and its stylistic sensibility, Blackouts brings to mind Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig, whom Juan claims as a “literary mother” and “fairy forefather.” Yet this novel is both more expansive and more intimate than one might expect based on Torres’s intertexts and earlier work. With great candor and sensitivity, Blackouts illuminates the multifaceted emotions that draw together queer people of different generations and that can accompany the varied “glimpses of sublimated history” they offer each other.
When they first met in that hospital, the narrator says, he immediately recognized Juan as a queer role model, and Juan intuited his young acquaintance’s need for a mentor: “When [Juan] spoke, he spoke in allusion, literarily, often pausing to check, with a look, whether I followed. I don’t think he expected me to understand directly, but rather wanted me to understand how little I knew about myself, that I was missing out on something grand: a subversive, variant culture; an inheritance.” It’s not entirely clear why the narrator has now returned to Juan, after forgetting about him for nearly ten years, or why Juan has entrusted him with this “inheritance,” but one doesn’t need to know those details to appreciate the powerful attachment between this pair. As the narrator’s “shameless vitality” emboldens him to peacock around the Palace in his briefs, proudly reveling in his own youthful charisma (“I hoped to give Juan a thrill, but he rarely flirted”), and as he picks up more and more tricks at the nearby bus depot (another echo of We the Animals), the narrator finds he “wanted only to be in the room, with Juan. I liked best to spend the night in the bed beside him, where I could feel his bones and papery skin, and breathe in his rotten breath, and know he hadn’t left.”
Blackouts is about much more than this nebulous bond, but I dwell on it here because it beautifully frames Torres’s wide-ranging investigations of queer sexuality, mental illness, and the legacy of Puerto Rico’s colonization. As he and the narrator keep working on their “project,” Juan recalls the “Pansy Craze” of the 1920s and 30s and warns, “The straight culture turned its attention to our culture, and the sudden, increased visibility of course provoked a backlash. If a cop walked into this room right now, with you in your little undies, lying together with me, so weak, on this bed, they’d see a crime. . . . And if a journalist walked in, they’d see a story, a scandal. And if a doctor walked in, they’d see illness. And not just in my body, but in your head.” Yet these legal barriers, stigmas, and pathologies have only strengthened—and sharpened the need for—the kind of cross-generational alliance Juan shares with the narrator: “People living under enormous pressure do sometimes break down, don’t they? . . . But then, how else would we have found each other?”
Some of the most memorable scenes and exchanges in Blackouts are those in which Torres poignantly depicts the narrator’s sense of indebtedness to Juan. I can’t stop thinking about one moment when the narrator admits he can’t stop thinking about the cop who once tried to rescue his mother from his father’s physical abuse:
“Do you know, Juan, for years, I carried that cop around in my head?”
“I don’t know that word. I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Jung. Or Lacan. You know, if I were an analyst, you’d be paying out the nose for these chats.”
“Am I not paying enough, Juan?”
Juan dodges this question, but Blackouts as a whole seems to be Torres’s own answer. What do we owe the elders we seek out, and how do we know whether we’ve offered enough in return for what they’ve given us? It’s an unsolvable dilemma that propels this sinuous novel. Reading Blackouts can be a dizzying experience: within a few pages, you might swerve from one of Juan’s anecdotes to an extemporaneously constructed screenplay, the synopsis of a children’s book, or an excerpt from Gay’s Sex Variants. Yet Torres’s irresistible prose anchors this ambitious, unruly novel of ideas, and thanks to his talent for excavating the many layers of tension and tenderness in his characters’ relationships, Blackouts is also a deeply moving queer love story. I won’t give away how that story culminates or what follows, but suffice it to say that Torres has produced a novel as complex and vulnerable as that Tress photograph displayed at the beginning—a novel that will richly reward those who grant, as Juan does, the narrator’s wish to be made naked, opened, and read.
By Justin Torres
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published October 10, 2023
Steven Pfau is a writer, editor, and teacher based in Los Angeles. He is working on a book of nonfiction about uncles, nephews, queer mentorship, and intergenerational bonds. Read more at www.stevenpfau.com.