The Torturer's Apprentice

This debut collection of stories by O. Henry Award winner John Biguenet is as notable for the rigor of its intellect as for the sweep of its imagination.  Whether recounting the predicament of an atheistic stigmatic in “The Vulgar Soul” or a medieval torturer who must employ his terrible skills upon his own apprentice in the title tale, these stories decline to settle for ready sentiments or easy assurances.

Rather than add to the massive canon of the victimized, for example, “My Slave” takes the perspective of the victimizer.  In “The Open Curtain,” a man achieves intimacy with his family only when he recognizes—watching them dine as he sits in his car at the curb—that he lives in a household of strangers.  Menaced by a gang of skinheads in a Jewish cemetery, an American tourist in Germany placates the Neo-Nazis with a formula he continues to repeat even after he is safely back home in "I Am Not a Jew."  And as for love, it makes demands in such stories as “Do Me” that shake our very notions of what it means to love.

If these stories engage the world in sometimes shocking ways, though, they are virtuoso engagements, eloquent in their prose, surprising in their plotting, sly in their humor.  Shifting among voices and narrative strategies, Biguenet imposes neither a single style nor a repeated structure as he depicts the ecological catastrophe of “A Plague of Toads,” the problem posed by a ghost in the nursery in “Fatherhood,” the ghastly discovery a grieving widower defends as "another kind of memory" in “Rose.” 

Whether it seeks to prick or to tickle, each story in The Torturer’s Apprentice addresses its subject with an authority unusual in contemporary literature as it entices the reader beyond the boundaries of the expected and the accepted.


"Stunningly impressive. John Biguenet... is a marvelously talented writer whose influences seem to be (if I may be so bold): Faulkner, Flaubert and Chekhov. And how huge a list is that? A superb collection from a fascinating writer."


"Biguenet's calm, lucid prose is consistently entrancing. . . .. His endings defy formula; every tale conceals more than it reveals."

-New York Times Book Review 

"John Biguenet's The Torturer's Apprentice deserves the highest praise . . . a showcase for an astonishing, occasionally daunting imagination."

-Minneapolis Star Tribune 

"The Torturer's Apprentice is full of bold risks, taken with intelligence and humor and pitch-perfect narrative voices."

-Robert Olen Butler 

"Like a trapeze artist who disdains the use of a net, Biguenet takes considerable risks in this impressive debut collection. . . . As skillful as they are ambitious, these uncompromising stories herald the arrival on the literary scene of a provocative new talent."

-Publishers Weekly

"Elegant, unencumbered prose. . . an outstanding collection."

-Library Journal

"Brilliant, uneasy stories. These stories have ... a wild and daring imagination, remarkable tonal control, and...a smooth integration of powerful ideas into seductive narratives. A diverse, compelling collection."

-San Francisco Chronicle

"Biguenet draws the reader into a spiritual labyrinth: stories of the psyche, at turns tender and coldly haunting."

-Chicago Tribune

"Readers will find themselves utterly captivated by [Biguenet's] hauntingly authoritative voice."

-Dallas Morning News

"The Torturer's Apprentice confirms Biguenet's place as one of the best new voices in literature."

-Creative Loafing

"Biguenet stages fabulist dark comedies with a wry deadpan that recalls the late Donald Barthelme, except that Biguenet's jokes tend to take on the weight and shape of moral parables."

-New Orleans Times-Picayune

"Biguenet's first collection of short stories . . . profits mightily from his deep erudition and his patience. These tales abound in intelligence and delight and an imagination released upon subjects whose familiarities are turned on their heads. Their curt, direct titles signal the clarity at the heart of these elegant constructions."

-Notre Dame Review 

"Through unorthodox situations and unexpected transformations, Biguenet explores with startling honesty the virtues and flaws that reveal themselves when we encounter extraordinary situations."

-Yale Review of Books 

“This remarkable collection, John Biguenet's first, has the hallmarks of the best short stories: economy, pregnancy, nothing wasted. . . They are linked above all by a sense of moments when the world turns uncanny, under the pressure of desire, or grief, or emergency.”

-The Telegraph (U.K.)

“Sometimes surprising, often humorous, always eloquent; this is short-storytelling at its very best.”

-Sainsbury's Magazine (U.K.)

“An absorbing collection with a pleasing ability to expand beyond rational limits into fantasy . . . [from a] talented and multifaceted writer.”

-New Books Magazine (U.K.)

This fine American collection lays its crowbar across less familiar ruptures . . . [with] attention to the acuteness of underlying moral dilemmas.”

-Financial Times (U.K.)

“Biguenet, it cannot be denied, is a complete master of his genre.“

-de Volkskrant (Netherlands)

"Another great American story writer."

-Het Parool (Netherlands)

Published by Ecco/HarperCollins.


Set on the Louisiana coast in 1957, Oyster recounts the tale of a deadly rivalry between two families.  To avoid ruin after years of declining oyster crops, Felix and Mathilde Petitjean offer their young daughter, Therese, in marriage to 52-year-old Horse Bruneau, who holds the papers on their boat and house.  Bruneau has spent his life as Felix's rival for both the Petitjeans' century-old oyster beds and, as we learn, Mathilde.  But as Therese explains to Horse one night as they float in a pirogue alone in the marsh, "I don't get bought for the price of no damn boat."

The sudden, spiraling violence of Oyster and the seething passions behind it drive an unpredictable tale of murder and revenge in which two women and the men who desire them play out a drama as elemental and inexorable as a Greek tragedy.


"John Biguenet's Oyster . . . neither condescends, still less sneers, at people often stigmatised as poor white trash. . . [but] strive[s] rather to understand the lives and hopes of underclass whites in the Deep South, losers in a country that abhors failure."

-The Economist (U.K.)

"Truths. . . as universal as any Euripides might have contemplated."

-Washington Post


-Los Angeles Times

"Biguenet. . . catches the scents and sounds of the bayou, and his characters bristle with a dark intensity."

-New York Times Book Review

"Stunning vistas, a magical feel for life on the water, a freshly thrilling way with the thriller, and an utterly satisfying ending."

-Baltimore Sun

"An outstanding first novel."


"Biguenet's style and texture evoke William Faulkner, and the story has the fateful feel of a Greek tragedy.  . . . A rich gumbo of incest and longing that simmers with tension."


"Suspenseful and intriguing, with a sultry atmosphere and seething passions."

-USA Today

"Biguenet's gripping debut novel. . . is an unforgettable look at the effects of generations of bad blood between two families."

-Booklist (Starred and Boxed Review)

"This remarkable first novel by Biguenet . . . [is] captivating from start to finish."

-Library Journal

"This first novel about deadly family rivalries on the Louisiana coast in

1957 will likely seduce many readers.  Biguenet. . . is a gifted stylist."

-"Summer's Hottest Picks" in Book Magazine

"Harrowing and often brutal. . . .  John Biguenet is an accomplished craftsman who has produced an arresting and evocative story."

-Chicago Tribune

"Biguenet's story jump-starts with a stunningly described act of violence . . . [then] pushes all the burdens imposed by both past and present toward the explosive denouement. "

-Kirkus Reviews

"'Oyster' is a smartly conceived, crisply written modern version of a Greek tragedy. Yet it moves so swiftly and persuasively you can barely detect its impeccable ancestry."


"Biguenet possesses a rare lyric gift that makes [the novel] beautiful as well as functional. . . . the reader will no doubt enjoy the succulent interior world within 'Oyster.'"

-San Francisco Chronicle

"A finely wrought tragedy of blood about the rivalry between two inextricably bound families, each bound in turn to the watery environs of south Louisiana."

-Minneapolis Star Tribune

"John Biguenet's short-story collection, The Torturer's Apprentice, received critical acclaim last year, and his debut novel seems likely to garner the same.  . . . Bit by bit, the author peels back the layers of old rivalries and passionate bonds between . . . two families, firing their actions with tragic intensity."

-Dallas Morning News

"Skillfully combining simultaneous plots that offer contrasting views on love and friendship, loss, and salvation, the novel opens with a brutal murder that sets into motion a tragic sequence of events that echo of Shakespearean tragedy. Biguenet creates something which, in less skillful hands, could have become a single-minded morality tale; instead, he weaves a swirling parable . . . so that, as a reader, you can't help turning the page."

-Creative Loafing (Charlotte)

"Oyster, the first novel by John Biguenet, showcases the extraordinary talents of its author."

-Macon Magazine

". . . a whiz bang of a murder story. Although sequels are usually best left to Hollywood, after one taste of Biguenet's vibrant, action-packed stew, most readers will be sure to salivate for an extra helping."

-Orlando Sentinel

"Biguenet's story is one of lives lived on the margin, when violence is seldom more than a pulse-beat away from explosion, people live hand-to-mouth, and love sometimes can be a commodity instead of a commitment."

-Richmond Times-Dispatch

"Biguenet has crafted a story that contains enough passion to stir even the most lethargic of hearts."

-New Orleans Gambit Weekly

"'Oyster' is a masterful tale of the deadly rivalries between two families who make their living on oyster leases in Plaquemines Parish in 1957."

-New Orleans Times-Picayune

"In Oyster, [Biguenet] has created a multilayered tale full of symbolism but carried along by an intense plot and memorable characters."

-Baton Rouge Advocate

"Oyster catches perfectly the language and cadences of the time as it unwinds slowly to its tragic end, with grief permeating every page. Good enough to eat."

-The Independent (U.K.)

"A feeling of inevitable tragedy hangs over John Biguenet's Oyster, . . .. an almost Shakespearean drama.  . . . [His] elegant, spare prose brilliantly depicts the personalities involved and their struggle to survive in the bleak, watery landscape."

-The Sunday Telegraph (U.K.)

"Biguenet writes with a restrained elegance, evoking with great clarity life on the bayou, with its strict social code, the hold the watery world has over the people who live and work in it.  . . . A pleasure to read."

-The Daily Telegraph (U.K.)

"Utterly gripping.  American critics loved it, rightly praising Biguenet's brilliant ear for dialogue and beautifully clear prose style."

-Sainsbury's (U.K.)

"Biguenet uses a prose style redolent with the sense of mystery emanating from the land and from the murky bayous that litter it. The sense of place is remarkable in this outstanding first novel, and the people who inhabit it are evoked in all their primitive splendour.  Recommended."

-The Irish Times       

“It is wrought so well that one will read it through breathlessly.”

– Het Parool (Netherlands)

“A wonderful story about the rivalry between two families, about past and present secrets, about love and betrayal against a backdrop of oyster fishing and the struggle against poverty.”

– De Leestafel (Netherlands)

“An absolute must-read.”

– (Netherlands)

“Masterfully written from beginning to end.”

-Le Figaro (France)

“An immemorial tragedy . . . a beautiful novel.”

-l’Humanité (France)

Published by Ecco/HarperCollins.