Justin Torres’ Blackouts, released over a decade after his brilliant, successful debut, We the Animals, is in conversation, literally and figuratively, with several other important works of literature. The story takes the form of a dialogue between two men, one at the end of his life and the other young and spry. Juan Gay lies dying in the Palace, a strange, decrepit place in the middle of the desert, where he has brought the narrator, whom he affectionately calls “nene.” The two men discuss how they met in a psychiatric ward and the trajectories of their lives before and after that point, which they describe as both a peak and nadir. Most importantly, they discuss a book on Juan’s shelf, Sex Variants: A Study in Homosexual Patterns written by Jan Gay, who Juan claims to have no relation to. With blacked out passages and beautiful, surreal images woven throughout the narrative, Torres delivers a feverish, thrilling and envelope-pushing novel.
Blackouts brings together several strands of both Latin American and queer literature, making for a moving metatextual conversation. The novel’s form is taken from Argentinian writer Manuel Puig’s 1976 Kiss of the Spider Woman in which two inmates discuss their lives. This dialogic setup allows Torres to mimic and build upon Puig’s ambition to delve into the political and social lives of his characters, illustrating their milieu while piercing their complex interiorities. Another touchstone is Mexican legend Juan Rulfo’s 1955 novel Pedro Páramo in which a man uncovers his family history from the ghostly inhabitants of a desert town. The arid, sweltering setting combined with the preeminence of death and an obsessive search for personal origins connect Torres to this classic and give the novel a mythic quality. At the same time, Sex Variants: A Study in Homosexual Patterns, which is a real book, gives Blackouts a slanted verisimilitude, placing it somewhere between delusion and dream.
Latino identity plays a significant role in the narrative, though it is not solidly defined, nor do the characters, or Torres, claim to have any authority over the matter. Early in the novel, Juan and nene wonder why they were drawn towards each other, and Juan suggests it was their Latinidad, though he clarifies, “I don’t just mean ethnicity, or skin tone; the resemblance is deeper, it carries over to manner as well, doesn’t it?” Here, manner is something like a way of being and acting, a way of holding memory, and Blackouts limns it intimately, in all its cultural and geographical insanity. Juan and nene see each other, they come together and they bring us with them.