"Reverting to a Wild State" by Justin Torres Originally published in the August 1, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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.