Justin Torres: “Reverting to a Wild State”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  Justin Torres’s “Reverting to a Wild State” was originally published in the August 1, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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I had never heard of Justin Torres, though he has published stories in Granta and Tin House, two literary journals I often read.  This is his debut in The New Yorker and it feels like a real short story, though he is publishing his first novel, We the Animals, with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September.

“Reverting to a Wild State” has an interesting, if not necessarily original, structure.  It begins with Part 3 and works its way down to Part 0, moving us in reverse chronological order.  Part 3 opens up with the narrator on a train platform, heading uptown to “clean for a man,” even though it’s past midnight.  Other than a few people, the train platform is empty.  While he stands on the train platform, he sees a feather on the edge, and, just before the train comes, he leans over to pick it up.

I waited there, poised, fascinated, as the train approached and the eyes widened.  When I finally stood, the woman and the young man were staring baldly.  We were all connected, all relieved that I had not jumped.

When the narrator gets to the building with the penthouse suite overlooking Central Park, the narrator introduces himself to the doorman as a Puerto Rican named Salvatore, and he admits to the reader that “Salvatore” is just a made up name.  Salvatore knows the doorman knows he’s not really Salvatore, and we all know that “cleaning” is just a a pretext (though he will soon be polishing the windows with a newspaper and ammonia).  Salvatore is a gay prostitute, and Part 3 ends with a bit that’s just as sad as the opening:

I did not look at him.  I looked at me in the window: half disappeared, slim, and young.  If you don’t pretend at vanity, the men feel dissatisfied.  Look at my smooth skin, look at my young face, look at my golden feather!

And then something else, conviction, took over; I am a very good pretender.  So, more than anything, I want to say this: in that moment I was happy.

Parts 2 and 1 take us back a bit to Salvatore’s crumbling relationship with Nigel, his justifiably jealous lover.  Part 0 takes us back (almost) to where their relationship began, back to the two of them arriving, just as a storm arrives, to a farm in Virginia where they’ve been hired as farmhands for the summer.  I both do and don’t want to give away the last little bit; it was only there, after all, that I really started to appreciate the story.  Up to that point, it was well written in straight-forward prose, but the relationship and the reverse chronology didn’t really feel unique.  The last paragraph packs enough power, though, to rework what’s come before, and I especially appreciated the artistry that called this section Part 0 rather than Part 1.

If it weren’t for the last little bit, I’d say the story is well written but forgettable and one to pass.  The ending changed all that for me (except for the well written part; the story is simple and clear), not necessarily enough for me to go out proclaiming this piece and probably not enough for me to rush out in September to read We the Animals, but certainly enough for me to say this is a worthwhile read and that Torres is worth watching.

17 thoughts on “Justin Torres: “Reverting to a Wild State””

  1. Brian E. says:

    I really enjoyed the piece, and am so thankful that the editors decided to try someone new for a change. In my opinion, The New Yorker really should move away from the “big name” writers. I understand that they are trying to sell magazines, but the recent stories by such authors (especially Munro) have no place in the magazine (they are underdeveloped and the work of writers comfortably sitting on their laurels), especially when we, the subscribers, are paying good money for each week’s issue.

    Torres story is, although stylistically unoriginal, filled with goodies–gorgeous writing littered with alliteration and sibilance, and and thoughtful ideas. The boy is a craftsman.

  2. Trevor says:

    Now, Brian E., you can’t come here and say bad things about Alice Munro :) . Her recent stories have been fantastic!

    Of course, I certainly agree it’s nice to see a promising new voice in Torres.

    My problem (generally, not every time) is when the magazine prints excerpts from the forthcoming works of currently hip authors. That’s where I think we paying subscribers get ripped off.

  3. Betsy says:

    Justin Torres’s “Reverting to a Wild State” is about Domestication, and as such, is almost endlessly interesting to me, having been married 44 years. One of my favorite stories of all time is T.C. Boyle’s “Tooth and Claw”. So, yes, domestication has been done before – but Torres is different. And I welcome his take.

    Ordinary domestic partners spend a lifetime oscillating between full domestication and reversion to the wild state, with most of the time spent in the middle ground that lies just to either side of the line. But in 44 years? There are those moments that veer or lurch to the extreme.

    In contrast to ordinary life, this story spends its itself in extremes, and notably, its characters experience themselves in fixed roles. Except that in one key moment, even Nigel and Salvatore exchange those roles. So Torres is talking about identity, too, the layers of identity, and the fluidity with which we assume a whole variety of roles, mostly as masks upon our wildest inner selves.

    A word about names. Of the two partners, the domestic one is Nigel, whose name is a confusion (according to wikipedia) of layered meanings. Wonderfully, Nigel can suggest black, in its latinized form (Nigellus and Niger), but in its Norse form it meant champion (in the sense of a fierce, spear wielding fighter). In Gaelic, Nigel morphs into Niall or Neal and is associated with clouds and passion, thus being the essence of changeability. Nigel reappeared into vogue in England in the 19th century and here in the 70′s, but at the same time, Nigel came into use as an epithet in Australia, meaning misfit. At any rate, Torres’s choice of Nigel as a name for a main character is suggestive of the layers of identity, with the violent and passionate Norse champion being buried deep in the timid and fearful Nigel of this story.

    As for Salvatore, the name is a purposeful assumption of a fake name, of a stage name, of a role. The twist is that any parent could want a savior for a son, to redeem themselves, their history, their position, their identity, their hearts. Any friend or partner might crave a savior. But what a burden that role would be. The further twist is that it is a prostitute who calls himself Salvatore, which of course, he could be, in just the right cicumstances. Or which perfect sex can be, in just the right circumstances. Or which the perfect spouse can be, in just the right circumstances. The darkness to one of this story’s section however, is that Salvatore is called upon to clean, in the nude, while someone watches, and Salvatore himself, likes seeing himself “half disappeared…”.

    Ironically, it is Nigel who plays the savior role: he is the one who grows the plants and rescues the feral cat.

    Salvatore is all sons – who cannot redeem his parents -he is all sons – who bear the assignment of being salvatore. But in his cheating, Salvatore assumes the role of the prodigal son. I think this story turns on the burden of assigned roles: prostitute-domestic partner, male-female, feral-tame, performer-onlooker, savior-taker, and all within the framework of dirty and clean. There is a rigidity in Salvatore’s thinking, a rigidity which he throws off with the wildness of the roles he plays – prostitute, thief, beauty, and bacchanal, to name a few.

    Trevor, both you and Brian refer to the quality of the writing, you commending it as “well-written” and Brian praising it as “gorgeous”. I agree with both of you. The opening sentences alone are all that (and Torres keeps the ball aloft throughout).

    In the first sentence, Salvatore spots a golden feather on the subway platform. We begin with a vision and all the attendant confusion of a vision. What’s he talking about? He explains. “I thought of a joke, about rats devouring an entire golden pigeon …”. We associate pigeons with dirt and grime, and yet here, in the single golden feather is the opposite: art and beauty and wealth. A single golden feather, meant to suggest that single grand experience? that single minute? the single perfect summer that Nigel and Salvatore had so many years before? Salvatore has created of himself a singleness of vanity and beauty to attract the men who are his customers and his diversion, but at the same time he is the (golden) pigeon devoured by the rats – in full view.

    Their relationship, the mutual shared life of Nigel and Salvatore, also is reduced, in the end, to that one golden feather – the memory of its beginning. In this heady season of the legitimizing of gay marriage, this story wonders at the true nature of marriage, which is, in any event, after all, the domestication of two wild souls.

    Nigel and Salvatore have a marriage of sorts, but it is suffused with lies, hope and dissumulation on both sides. It is a constructed thing, like a garden, to be either nurtured or destroyed. The feather that Salvatore finds and wears around his neck is an impossibility of art; and marriage, for them, and for many people, lies in that same realm, an impossibility of art.

    (And that’s my riff on the first two sentences.)

    The third sentence contains that same artful writing: “A bum slept expertly on his too small bench…”. Not only does this sentence have a rhythm that flows between ex’pert’ly’ and too’ small’ bench’, that same rhythm is again echoed at the end of the sentence in ve’ry rough’ look’ of the ve’ry young’ man’. I think Torres cares how his sentences sound.

    But beyond that, the image of the bum sleeping expertly amid the cacaphony of the station mirrors Salvatore’s own balancing act – to be free to be perfectly obedient to self and none other amid the competing desires to also be part of the world.

    In addition, that bum is not sleeping under a bridge: his is a constructed performance, a role “expertly” done. The bum is, in fact, attempting a kind of domesticated life. He’s also a kind of preparation for the feral cat that Nigel adopts and tames – the idea being – that all around us is wildness being shaped and tamed into art or at the very least, domestication.

    This third sentence contains yet another flourish in the shape of the young woman who “pulled herself inward and stood far away, watching her toes…” So the bum and Salvatore both have an unwilling observor on the platform who cannot wait to get away; she’s aware of both performances, but like most of the world, pretends they do not exist. Her polar opposite is the threatening young man in that same sentence who gives Salvatore a “rough look”. There is nothing in this sentence that embodies the livable middle where most of us would prefer to live – thus warning us of what is to come.

    In three sentences, Torres has set up a tableau that starts the story, sets ups a resonance and a tone, repels with its grit and seduces with its beauties. He goes on to write about Salvatore’s life the way Tim O’Brien writes about war, with a kind of singing, complicated, beautiful, simplicity. Making that kind of comparison threatens to diminish both men, however, when what I really want to do is honor both. I suppose such comparisons are a kind of domestication of the writing and their authors, which in each original is a kind of wildness. But thinking of one writer in terms of another is a means to grasp their essence, and in that case, defensible. So Torres reminds me of O’Brien.

    The question of the structure of this story brings me to my one doubt. I don’t think the numbers that head the sections are necessary. The numbering would work as well if it were done in the conventional order. What is essential, though in the structuring of the story is that it proceed backwards as it does. That, after all, is how we often arrive at the truth.

    There is so much more that this story invites us to think about: the part that money plays in relatinships, the way we buy and sell each other, the role that theft plays in relationships, the very real desire to be beautiful, the very real desire to possess beauty, our fear of being the trick, and our fear of being tricked, and most of all our fear of being tricked in a marriage.

    And there is our profound fear of the partner who becomes an outsider in the marriage, the one who won’t explain herself, or himself. This is a great story.

    But there are two or three other things I still want to tackle.

    First, the lying. Salvatore seems to think that lying, sneaking around, and thievery are his for the taking. There is a corollary here to the lying that Jay Gatsby does – both to others and himself. Since Gatsby has perfected himself into a kind of ideal beauty, he seems to believe he can do no wrong in his pursuit of this perfect self, and Salvatore, adorning himself with his found golden feather, is a character in the same spirit. Salvatore’s life is another American dream of self-realization, but in it there is a profoundly sad selfishness.

    There is also in this story a terrible violence. Nigel’s attack on Salvatore is calculated, demeaning, and vicious. Salvatore says he’s okay, but we are in shock. Salvatore could have died. The violence is an extreme version of the paybacks that occur in any relationship; but we recognize this level of extremity with fear and trembling. And we wonder at Salvatore’s strange denial – he’s not okay. He cannot be okay. It’s as if the violence of prostitution is nothing to the violence of a marriage. The brutality in this “marriage” of Nigel and Salvatore is stunning. Both partners are battered, both partners are batterers.

    Terrible losses abound. Torres balances these with the abundant purity of the love Nigel and Salvatore originally felt. Once again, he gives us an image that feels perfect: the small farm in Virginia, its shack, ready to tumble down the mountain, held in place by the farmer’s art, the yearly stone placed just so, and the explosion of life within it all.

    This story is a strange Cassandra-like homage to our celebration of the new marriage laws in New York; but I think it works. Being alive is by its nature a selfish endeavor; being committed to the well being of another is an art. Best to remember that.

    What I like best about this story, however, is the way Torres makes both Nigel and Salvatore fully human, but in just a few pages.

  4. Trevor says:

    Wonderful thoughts, as usual, Betsy. I came away from them liking this story quite a bit more.

    I did feel differently than you about the numbering, though, so I would like to respond to your one doubt. I agree that numbering would have been a rather pointless stylistic flare had they counted back to 1, but here we count back to 0. I think that’s significant if we consider that 0 to be the zero point, where it began and where they were most together; sadly it is also a point of togetherness that also represents a point of departure. I also like it inasmuch as that 0 is the void they no longer want to think about and that Part 0 is also the void that we readers don’t hear about, except by way of telling us we won’t hear about it. Perhaps not necessary, but I did think it was a nice touch.

    As for the reverse chronology, it had me wondering, which way is the reversion to the wild state? Is the reversion complete at the beginning of the story, in Part 3 or at the end in Part 0? I think there’s a lot to think about there, and you’ve certainly introduced that conversation by talking about the roles each character is playing.

  5. Betsy says:

    I’m looking forward to someone else anwering these questions, Trevor! As Aaron, I believe, said (so to speak) a really good story is rich enough for mystery and strong enough to hold up a variety of opinions. But I’m done for today, and I hadn’t even gotten started! I like your distinction regarding the numbering – just going to 1 would have been merely a “stylistic flare”. As you point out – the zero is another thing entirely.

  6. Walker says:

    The review by Betsy is great! Before reading your comment, the fiction was just another ordinary story to me. Only after reading do I realize this is a deep piece of writing. And this also reminds me I am still a Chinese knowing very little about your literature, although I really appreciate them. Thank you so much!

  7. Betsy says:

    Hi Walker – thanks. You remind me of my goal to read some Chinese fiction in translation. Any suggestions?

  8. Trevor says:

    Walker, indeed! The commenters often get me to reevaluate my original opinion by helping me see so much I just wasn’t paying attention to. Betsy, of course, has added imense value since she started posting — thanks to all! And Betsy, any time you have the inclination to pick up any threads you could have kept following, please do! I know I always have an appetite for more :) .

  9. Betsy says:

    Thank you, Trevor, for the encouragement! But …

    Actually, Trevor, the thread I am going to pick up is one I deleted from my first post, since it was a diversionary, personal tack. This thread has to do with the writing, my own writing. First, I read the story at least twice, and I make all kinds of observations on my slick New Yorker paper copy. I find it very satisfying to mark up the story with a nice ballpoint on that ssssslick paper! This feels to me like a luxurious conversation. Also, quite a few people have indicated to me that they disapprove of the way I write in the books and newspapers and magazines I own. That gives it all the more of a frisson.

    I then make a list of things that interest me about the story, in no particular order, and yet at the same time, I look for some groupings, or wait for some things to fall together. Then I sit down to write at the computer. So after the reading, it usually takes me about three hours to get something that feels like a decent first draft – and that’s what I send you. It is a kind of freedom to not write a conventional three-legged essay, not have a final draft, not have it perfect.

    There was a very funny piece in the Sunday Times Book Review on the tedium of the now I’m-going-to-tell you-what-I’m-going-to-tell-you kind of writing. The New Yorker essayists use an entirely different method: there is never a precis of the writer’s three major points in either the intro or the conclusion. There never is even a regular introduction or conclusion. You have to read the whole thing to “get” it! There is always much personal observation. Sometimes the essays wander a bit, and sometimes the writer takes, like Julian Barnes, a variety of tacks into the subject. The essays often feel more like a very long letter than an essay, and sometimes they are actually called “A Letter From …”. So I emulate that kind of writing. I like to read these pieces and I like writing that way as well, as it seems such a relief from the work-a-day world.

    The trouble is that one can get carried away with the journey in this kind of writing, ever waiting to arrive at your best point. If you spend too much time at it, you end up not just in an interesting place, but somewhere else entirely. One can get mixed up. So I have to place some limits. So I resist answering, wondering, like now, where it is all going to take me.

    I have to spend a lot of time, for instance, in this kind of writing, deleting a lot of extraneous thoughts.

    This story interested me so much I went way beyond my usual three hours, however, and I noticed that my proofreading suffered, not to mention the thread from sentence to sentence, and paragraph to paragraph. So I thank you for saying that I am welcome to pick up on a thread and expand upon it – but it is as if I need, after such excess, to let my brain settle, so as, for instance, not to be repetitious or meandering, overly personal, or just lacking in common sense or propriety.

    Recently I read something (I can’t think where right now) concerning the interesting proposition that writers feel more alive when they are writing than when they are speaking, as if there were some chemical reaction when writers see their thoughts spreading themselves across a page in such a seemingly orderly fashion. I have even heard people talk about the pleasure they get from the sensation of writing when they are using a certain kind of mechanical pencil, the delicious sense they have that the paper is resisting the graphite in a continually yelding way. I myself love the percussion of the keys as an accompaniment to thinking – both the slight delicious resistance of the keys, as well as the way the keyboard frames my thinking with its rhythmic depressions, clicks, releases and taps. I get kind of mesmerized by the whole thing.

    But it is awfully easy to go slip-sliding away.

    So. To respond to your invitation ~ I will remark on one more thing regarding Justin Torres’s wonderful story. I was fascinated with the way Torres refers to the buying and selling that goes on within any relationship. (Just think about the trouble that sometimes arises when trying to pay one’s share of the lunch & the tip.)

    In this story, though, everything matters. Salvatore leaves twenty dollars behind for the waitress, thus putting her in her place, thus redeeming his self-respect, thus insulting her, as she insulted him, thus killing her with kindness. But at what price? There’s a casual self-harm here in the grandiose gesture. The possession of money provides Salvatore a sense he is free. When he steals from his employer, he feels free. But at what price? We know he has lost quite a few jobs. When he goes back to Nigel’s apartment, there is the possibility that he sensed the attack that was coming and actually chose to go back: more casual self-harm. Thus he pays for his cheating. Thus his cheating is, in some sense, free. It’s been paid for. As a prostitute, he has a vision of a golden pigeon attacked by rats, the pigeon somehow paying for its own beauty that way.

    When Salvatore looks back on the summer in Virginia, there is no money, there is only the embrace of the two acre farm and the holiness of their shack. In the presence of the dirt, they are incorrupted.

    The way power plays out in this story is alarming, and, as a woman, I can’t help making the comparison to the ways in which a conventional wife “earns” her keep, and “pays” for her small moments of independence. In this way, of course, I might be thinking more of a fifties woman than a contemporary woman, and more of an abused fifties woman than a whole one. There are, however, nooks in our society where those old fifties marriages still exist.

    These comparisons between prostitution and marriage would all be very pedestrian except that Nigel and Salvatore are so alive to us that we grieve for them.

    And at the same time, we grieve for anyone else caught in the same kind of trap.

    Finally, I do like your idea, Trevor, Salvatore’s reversion to a wild state might be when Salvatore allows himself to actually feel love.

    That is really interesting.

  10. Walker says:

    Hello Betsy and Trevor, thank you for your response. I’m quite nervous because this is actually my first time to communicate with somebody outside my small social circle. I’m a student in Hong Kong so sorry if there is any grammatical mistake.

    The writings of Lu Xun, especially ‘Call to Arms’, are inspiring and stark reminders of the dark times of the contemporary China. The characters are the stereotypes of Chinese people— foolish, selfish and pathetic. He explored the fundamental problems of Chinese and how they shaped the cruel fate of the commoners at that time.

    You can also search Four Great Classical Novels. Although I don’t finish all of them, I find them deeply entertaining. (The classical Chinese language is quite difficult to understand.) The novels show the concept of Chinese morals, and what heroes in China were meant to be.

    I’m a beginner in literature and classics. They are so wonderful and profound! Could you please introduce some for me? By the way, the first literary fiction I read is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

    Once again, thank you very much!

  11. Betsy says:

    Thanks, Walker. A little web-surfing tells me that Lu Xun is the father of modern Chinese literature and that the short story was one of his forms of writing. This seems like a good place to start for the neophyte in modern Chinese literature.

    And my initial search for translators of the 4 classical novels indicates that the Hawkes and Minford editions are two good translations.

    Becoming familiar with these authors and books would probably take quite quite a while!

    It would also be interesting to know what contemporary Chinese authors (who are also in English translation) are popular with students in Hong Kong. Thanks for your guidance!

  12. Aaron says:

    You’re correct in that I think the key to any story is surprise (I got that from a workshop professor who got that, I believe from Andre Dubus, who is a good person to learn from): surprise, however, must come to both the author and the reader. I found *this* piece to be stifling, and more about that here (http://bit.ly/nXrMNa).

    From the structure (numbering included) to the scenes to the self-awareness of the narrator (which somewhat interferes with the reversion — it’s hard to revert if you are consciously aware of doing so), Torres knows exactly what he is doing, and while Betsy shows that there’s still plenty of room to read within the lines, I don’t think she’ll be able to arrive at any conclusions other than the ones Torres wants. The explicitness of that line that Trevor quotes (“I want to say this: in that moment I was happy”) is the point of the piece, about pretending and the faces we wear (how we buy and sell ourselves in emotional transactions).

    This line, coming so early in the story, actually detracts from the final paragraph (which I can understand readers appreciating, though it’s far from novel, the whole “I can’t tell you” act of telling you) — could we have led to anything else? I kept waiting to find out that he’d *never* been happy, or for some sort of twist, a better understanding of what had led “Santiago” to pursue his cheating ways (men on bicycles, men in penthouses), but that never came: “Santiago” was merely the perfect victim. I much prefer a film like “Irreversible” or a musical like “Merrily We Roll Along” where you SEE how bad things are at the beginning, so that you can understand how much they’ve LOST by the end. Even that, given the lack of tenderness shown in this selection scenes, is absent — I don’t mourn the end of the relationship with Nigel — more time was spent describing the sunglasses (“they made the whole world seem as if I were swimming through honey”) than describing the way Nigel made him feel.

    As I say, there are elements I like, but I don’t think Torres’s structure allows him to pull the most out of them. So far as this character goes, I’m more interested in what happens next than in what has happened in the past. Ah well.

  13. Nancy C says:

    3-2-1-0 Blast Off! I love this story. And the numbers ARE necessary in my book. The brilliant last paragraph totally repackages what’s come before and commands a second read of the whole story which (for me was exquisitely heart wrenching). This is real literature: reminding a reader of what it means to be hardened by life and love. Stylistically original? Enough for me, but who really cares? It’s a great read from a great writer. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

  14. Ken says:

    I have to agree with Aaron about the story’s entire trajectory being inevitable and the “ending” of their one-time bliss a bit predictable. This has been done in two films: Betrayal (script by Harold Pinter) and the Francois Ozon film 5×2 so I was hardly surprised. Nevertheless, I really liked this because, as well noted by Betsy, it’s very well-written, it really flows along hypnotically and has virtuosic and fresh passages such as Sal seeing himself in the window and the New York topography while cleaning. That alone was worth reading the story. I also found the ending very moving (even if predictable) and agree that using “0″ not “1″ was a good idea. I didn’t see the character’s fate at the end as being as sad as some did. Who knows where he will go from there and in a way why not enjoy your prostitution? It’s an industry which should be legalized anyway and which is not inherently wrong although often populated by victims of childhood abuse and often sleazily exploitative (partly as illegal and thus not offering the prostitute certain protections).

  15. Andromeda says:

    Thanks for the thorough and thoughtful post. I’m using this story in a class for a discussion about reverse chronology and nonlinear storytelling in general. My second read of the story really opened it up for me, and this post and comments helped me slow down and think through it as I reread a third time. One definition of literature: something that deepens with each reading, and we might add, deepens yet again with discussion. Thank you!

  16. Trevor says:

    Andromeda, thanks for bringing this book up again. Torres book is getting a lot of good publicity now that it’s out, and I’m half tempted to pick it up . . .

    Agree fully with that definition of literature :)

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