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'Blackouts' is an ingenious deathbed conversation between two friends

Macmillan

Blame the Halloween season, but Justin Torres' Blackouts strikes me as a traditional novel wearing the costume of "experimental fiction."

I say that because even though Blackouts is festooned in dizzying layers of tales-within-tales, photographs, film scripts, scholarly-sounding endnotes and fictionalized accounts of real-life figures, at its core is a classic conceit, one that's been dramatized by the likes of Tolstoy, Willa Cather, Marilynne Robinson and many others: I'm talking about the deathbed scene.

Here, that scene consists of a conversation between two friends about the distortions and erasures of queer history. And, what a sweeping, ingenious conversation it is.

Over a decade has passed since Torres made his mark with his semi-autobiographical debut novel called We the Animals, which was hailed as an instant "queer classic" and made into a film. Blackouts justifies the wait.

The novel opens with the arrival of a 27-year-old man at an eerie, ornate ruin of a building called "the Palace" located somewhere in the desert. He's seeking an older man known as Juan Gay.

Some 10 years ago, the two men met when they were institutionalized for their sexual orientation. Now Juan is very sick and he asks his younger friend, whom he affectionately calls in Spanish, "Nene," to promise to remain in the Palace and "finish the project that had once consumed him, the story of a certain woman who shared his last name. Miss Jan Gay."

Jan Gay, it turns out, was the actual pseudonym of Helen Reitman, a real-life queer writer and sex researcher. She was also the daughter of Ben Reitman, known as the "hobo doctor," who ministered to the poor and who was a lover of the anarchist, Emma Goldman. You see how Juan's stories begin to spiral out, touching history both imagined and true.

Nene is oblivious to most of this history. So it's Juan's mission before he dies to enlighten his young friend — and, by extension, those of us readers who also need enlightening. Here's how Nene remembers his earliest realization that he had a lot to learn, back when he first met Juan and was struck by his quiet self-possession:

Nene's ignorance about that "inheritance" is not all his own fault, of course: That history was censored, obliterated. That's where Juan's "project" comes in. He owns a copy of a book — an actual book — called Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns that was published in 1941.

The book was built on Jan Gay's original research into queer lives and the oral histories that she collected; but that research was twisted by so-called medical "professionals" who co-opted her work and were intent on categorizing homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder and a crime. Torres' title, Blackouts, refers to the blacking out of pages of Jan Gay's interviews with her queer subjects, pages that are recreated here.

Juan and Nene's extended deathbed conversation about sex, family ostracism, Puerto Rican identity and films they love like Kiss of the Spider Woman (an inspiration for this novel), is a way of imaginatively restoring some of that "forbidden" material.

Blackouts is the kind of artfully duplicitous novel which makes a reader grateful for Wikipedia. Although Torres supplies what he coyly terms "Blinkered Endnotes" to this novel, I found myself checking the sources of almost everything — including illustrations from mid-20th-century children's books that Jan Gay wrote with her real-life, longtime partner, Zhenya Gay. (The book banners will flip out when they learn of this actual couple whose children's books may still be lurking on library shelves.)

But, at the still center of this spectacular whirl of talk and play, remain the remarkable figures summoned from history and Torres' imagination, whose lives were animated by their outlawed desires. Torres articulates a blinding blizzard of hurt in these pages. Yet Nene and Juan give us and themselves much joy, too. A kiss to build a dream on.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.