We the Animals, the beautiful debut novel from Justin Torres, moves in small moments. Tiny chapters, spare prose, and meticulous sentences take us through the complicated, messy childhood of three brothers.
Living with their white mother and Puerto Rican father in upstate New York, Joel, Manny, and the unnamed narrator are so inextricably linked, we often hear their story in first person plural:
“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the sounds of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”
Torres has drawn from his own experience in writing this book, and although We the Animals is not a memoir, it has the distinct quality of truth running through it, the clarity of detail. During a scene when their father has disappeared, and their mother has stopped showing up for work, stopped eating, stopped cooking, and taken to sleeping on the couch or at the kitchen table with her head on her arm, the boys are left to fend for themselves.
The boys have a rough childhood, and the book moves swiftly through scenes of violence and uncertainty, but it never sinks into hopelessness. There are moments of love, lots of them, and shining moments of optimism. Torres draws a subtle balance between these two emotional ends and creates a world that is always vibrant and surprising.
Because the book navigates carefully through scenes and chapters that encapsulate singular events, it has a fragmented quality. This unique structure is part of the beauty of the book, not only because it feels like memory itself moving from moment to moment, but also because it allows the specific to become the universal. In an early scene, the boys sit around the kitchen table in raincoats smashing tomatoes. “We felt the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding; the guts dripped down the walls and landed on our cheeks and foreheads and congealed in our hair.” It’s one of the many seamless, vivid moments that fill this book and become emblematic of childhood in the larger sense.
All the short chapters in We the Animals feel like they are building towards something. It’s not clear at first where these pieces are heading, but there is an underlying doom that hovers just below the surface of the story and as we near the end, the narrative becomes more and more focused. Somewhat inevitably, as he grows up, the narrator pulls away from his brothers and a distance develops between them.
“Look at my brothers—their saggy clothes, their eyes circled dark like permanent bruises, their hangdog hungry faces. I felt trapped and hateful and shamed. Secretly, outside of the family, I cultivated a facility with language and bitter spite. I kept a journal—in it, I sharpened insults against all of them, my folks, my brothers. I turned new eyes to them, a newly caustic gaze. I sensed a keen power of observation in myself, an intelligence, but sour.”
As the narrator develops his own identity, apart from his brothers, he gains an understanding about his past, and more importantly, clarity about his future and his place in the world. This realization is heartbreaking. It marks the high point of the novel, and everything that comes before it resonates even more deeply.
Dorothy Allison has said about We the Animals, “Some books quicken your pulse. Some slow it. Some burn you inside and send you tearing off to see who made this thing that can so burn you and quicken you and slow you all at the same time. A miracle in concentrated pages, you are going to read it again and again.”
To me, this is exactly what the book achieves; it allows you to feel simultaneous emotions in every moment, at once sad and anxious and joyful and connected. It is a book about childhood and growing up, brotherhood and family. But it is also about memory, how it shapes us and forms our future and the way we define our past in our own minds. Torres has written a brave, important book. It will stay with you for a long time after reading it, and like Allison said, you are going to read it again and again.
Read the Rumpus Interview with Justin Torres.