Review: Blackouts by Justin Torres (Washington Post)
Before the Kinsey Institute, there was the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants. In 1941, that group published the landmark report “Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns,” which contained analysis of 80 case histories. It made for remarkable reading: a frank, vivid record of early-20th-century sexuality. Though its author, George W. Henry, took as a given that homosexuality was a “sexual perversion” to be overcome, the interviews themselves were and are invaluable documents of queer history in all its variation, joy and difficulty. The report is considered by some a watershed moment in the de-pathologizing of being gay in the United States, up there with the American Psychiatric Association’s board of trustees voting in 1973 to change the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.
A heavily modified edition of “Sex Variants” is pivotal to Justin Torres’s “Blackouts.” In this shimmering, fable-like novel, an old copy of the report is discovered by Juan Gay, an elderly man with a personal connection to its prehistory. Juan is living in an institution known only as the Palace, in a small desert city “thousands of miles and several days away.” As he lies dying, he is visited by our narrator, an unnamed, unmoored young man who has sought out Juan’s oracular company. The old man’s last wish is that our narrator complete “the project that had once consumed him, the story of a certain woman who shared his last name,” the woman whose vital work on the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants was almost completely elided when the report was published: Jan Gay.
For the review in full, visit The Washington Post.