Justin Torres’ slender debut novel, We the Animals, is fierce, raging, intense and searing. Three small boys, half-Puerto Rican, half-white Brooklyn, grow up in a chaotic household of blazing love, drunken rage, gnawing poverty and feral emotion. Manny, Joel and the first-person narrator, a six-year-old who turns seven with no hope of party, cake or even a happy birthday, are a trio of trouble tumbling through misadventures in upstate New York. Ma and Paps, married at 14 and 16, work the graveyard shift, fight, make-up, drink too much, leave, come back and make a home of unbearable, all-consuming need that cages the little animals as much as it embraces them.
The language is as razor-sharp, dangerous and translucent as shards of broken glass. The adventures are all misadventures. Learn to swim by being towed out to the middle of a lake and let go. Punch, hit and use your claws because some days there are no grown-ups in the family and no one has your back. Know that your brothers, schooled to failure upon failure, always have your back, even as they kick your skinny butt and resent you for your good grades. Steal, lie, wreck stuff, learn how love and hate can be the same thing.
This family is addicted to itself and each other, broken beyond repair but stuck together against a world that has no place for them. The kids are exuberant and bursting with life, even as life grinds their hopeless parents to a pulp. The youngest remains slight, almost pretty, as the brothers mature and he discovers the lure of the local bus station with its transients and furtive men’s room. The sudden wreckage that rips them all apart manages to bind them, too, like the twisted metal of a scorched fuselage. They are imprinted on each other, wild animals in a pack that has total recall whether or not it is scattered.
We the Animals is gorgeous writing and storytelling. Justin Torres is an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, published in A-list literary magazines. It will be interesting to see what he serves up in his next book.
We the Animals: A novel Justin Torres Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011