Launching Justin Torres

by on March 7th, 2015
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The August 1st issue of the New Yorker included the striking (in several ways) debut of Justin Torres: a three-part in reverse order story “Reverting to a Wild State.” More striking even than its incantory prose, mildly experimentalist structure, and homosexual content was its illustration (by Autumn Whitehurst, recalling those jacket cover illustrations of Mel Odom) of a young and smoothed brown body in profile clad in white briefs. The model’s posing in front of a window overlooking the city actually relates directly to something in the story, btw (“When I got to the apartment, the man instructed me to keep my underwear on” and “I liked my reflection in the nighttime glass…. The reflection of my white cotton underwear neared opacity…”), and to his own experience of working in his underwear in a Texas gay bar, but guaranteed that most any gay male reader (and a lot of female ones) would read the story, which was short.

At a reading that was also a book launch last night at the Upper Market Books Inc. for We the Animals, the author, who was tall, dark, handsome, 31, and somewhere between lithe and skinny had a fan club turn out. He used to work at San Francisco’s Mission District Modern Times Bookstore, is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and lives on Potrero Hill, so has become “local” and has friends who turned up to cheer him on. The reading was SRO, with an audience more than double the seating capacity. They had to stand a long time waiting for the event to begin (which is not because the author was late: I saw him arrive about 15 minutes before the scheduled start, which was 25 minutes before the real start).

Torres’s novel about a triad of sons of an Anglo mother and a Puerto Rican father is also incantory and very brief and eventually includes the family members becoming aware that the bookish youngest son is gay. In that for most of the very short running time of the novel he is seven years old, the same-sex relations of interest are nonsexual ones with a menacing and punitive father and a fairly wacko mother. That she works nights at a brewery accounts for some of her loose sense of time and other “realities.” And that she bore sons (the “animals” of the title) when she was 14, 15, and 17 (and Paps was 16,17, and 19).

The boys are exuberant, playing not only the Three Musketeers, and the Three Stooges, but also the Trinity (the protagonist has the vague role of Holy Ghost, while God the Father whips his only begotten son). The first half (two-thirds?) of the book is written in the third-person plural. The last quarter is written more explicitly from adulthood with knowledge of the narrator’s difference from his brother and what the future held for the three animals. (Torres springs the shift on the readers; I guess it could be said that he also sprang the temporal reversal in “Reverting to a Wild State” on us, but the three times of the story are all within the length of a chapter of the novel… and the flashbacks illuminate the desolation of the present, whereas We the Animals does not have a particular point… or much plot, though it has more humor.)

A first novel about childhood inevitably raises the question of autobiography. As I heard Robert Stone say a few years ago (at a different local Books Inc. store), today’s readers assume that everything in memoirs is fiction and that nothing in fiction is imagined (it’s all autobiography). Torres told the Books, Inc. audience that the “hard facts” of his novel are true: he has two brothers, his mother worked in a brewery when he was seven (and he’s gay, though he did not mention that continuity), but that the characters are different: imagined, fictionalized. In an online New Yorker interview, he said, “Everything I write has autobiographical elements…. Something magical happens as you filter personal experience through imagination and language… the scraps of lived experience morph.”

That he read three chapters in less than fifteen minutes indicates how short the chapters are. Each is a vignette, a snapshot of growing up a mutt: not exactly poor but working class, part Anglo, part Puerto Rican (and not much associating with anyone outside the family). Torres supposes these are “emblematic moments.” Some strike me; others seem humdrum despite the same incantory prose. For me the 125-page novel is thin rather than concentrated. Promising­, but wispy. The story justifies some buzz, but why the novel has gotten so much attention (Oprah, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, though only a “briefly noted” in the New Yorker) is not explicable at least in my judgment from the quality of the novel. It’s well written, but does not seem to me likely to eclipse Les enfants terribles, Le Grand Meaulnes, The Carnivorous Lamb, The House on Mango Street, “Spirit of the Beehive,” Bastard Out of Carolina, Rubyfruit Jungle, or Call Me By Your Name (or Out of Egypt or Room, or The Buddha of Suburbia). Would it be receiving so much attention (away from where the author now lives) if it were the story of three Anglo brothers in Boise or Topeka or Louisville? I doubt it. (Torres was raised in upstate New York (Baldwinsville), so perhaps my suspicion of the NYC-centrism of American media is unfair in this instance… But the “hard fact” of location gave way to setting the novel in Brooklyn.)

To the inevitable question about influences, Torres first said that he read Dorothy Allison when he was a teenager and later had the privilege of working with her. (She also supplied the top-featured blurb on the back cover. Marilynne Robinson, Michael Cunningham and Daniel Alarcon also supplied blurbs for it.) He also mentioned Tillie Olson and Grace Paley. The first two write/wrote about working-class families and the latter two were pretty short-winded. (He also mentioned a male writer of compressed stories whose name I didn’t recognize and don’t remember).

To the almost as inevitable question about whether someone who writes such poetic prose also writes poetry, Torres said that he reads a lot of poetry but does not write it. He also said that he had written most of what became We the Animals before he went to the Iowa writer’s program. There, he had time to think about the book and he cut out a plotline that was mixed with his first draft of the movel.

He did not want to talk about what he is writing, but mentioned that he has another story with a male sex worker coming out soon in Harper’s. The author note accompanying one in GRANTA (104) said he was”finishing a collection of short fiction from which ‘Lessons’ is taken,” but if this is still planned, he did not mention it.

The answer to the question of what his family members thought of the book was derailed by his mother correcting him when he said only one of his two brothers had read it. Her presence showed her supportiveness, but she did not tell him/us what the brother thought of the book. The one who Torres knew had read it was very supportive.

Someone asked about the rather peculiar frame of the laudatory review of the book in the New York Times by Charles Isherwood last Sunday. Torres was as puzzled as I am and the questioner was why his book (in particular) is ” the kind of sensitive, carefully wrought autobiographical first novel that may soon be extinct from the mainstream publishing world.” I’d think the book’s success would spur publication of more beautifully written if wispy quasi-memoirs. (Rereading the review, though, I think that the sons’ “complicity in the chaos of their parents’ fraught marriage” is just right.)

I wanted to ask if children aged 7-10 talked the way they do in his novel, but how could that question not sound hostile? And out of place at a celebration of the launch of a first novel… And I wish the charming author well.Though I think that the hype is raising expectations that the novel will not sustain for readers, attention to a literary novel is IMO a good thing.

And it seemed too trivial to ask why there is not a comma after “We” in the title, especially since in the body of the book there is a plentitude of punctuation. Punctuation is a necessary means to establishing the percussive rhythm of Torres’s prose.

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