We the Animals by Justin Torres consists of only 125 pages. While the novel is short on length, it is definitely long on style. We the Animals is Torres’ debut novel that takes readers deep into the hearts of a mixed and mixed-up family. Torres is no stranger to the literary world. He received a Rolón Fellowship in Literature from United States Artists and is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. His writing has previously appeared in Granta, Tin House, and Glimmer Train. He is from upstate New York.
The novel is narrated by the youngest son of Paps and Ma, who are both from New York. Paps is Puerto Rican, and Ma is white. Their relationship is a volatile one that sometimes turns violent. Torres chooses to tell the story in the increasingly popular first-person plural. The storyteller’s name is unknown to the reader, but the reader does learn the identities of his older brothers, Manny and Joel. The brothers are as thick as thieves growing up, which Torres does a superb job of illustrating. They are rough and tough and ready for anything. “When we fought, we fought with boots and garage tools, snapping pliers—we grabbed at whatever was nearest and we hurled it through the air; we wanted more broken dishes, more shattered glass. We wanted more crashes.” Yet, these three brothers have a strong, seemingly unbreakable bond. “We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.” Sometimes Torres portrays them like little monsters, little feral kittens, but always lovingly.
The parenting skills of Paps and Ma disturbed this reviewer. They were yet another example of kids begetting kids; she was fourteen when she became pregnant with Manny, the oldest son. Often, the boys and their needs take a backseat to those of Paps and Ma. In one memorable instance, the boys are playing with tomatoes. Pulpy juice covers their faces. Ma looks at them and it reminds her of the way they looked when she gave birth to them. Ma wants to join in on their game: “Make me born,” she says. Ma also wakes up confused over the day and time during one scene and is convinced the boys should be in school when it is a Sunday night. Paps is also guilty of neglect at times. He gets drunk and disappears for days on end. Ma and the boys are scared of him. One day, while the boys are hiding behind a shower curtain (a fact both parents know), Paps and Ma have sex. Yet Torres does this to underscore the brothers as a unit. “When we were brothers,” he writes, “we were Musketeers.” When the boys are together, they speak in unison, “one voice for all.”
The chapters are short, but Torres lends a certain rhythm to them. When Paps danced in front of the boys, they drank him in. In the dance, they knew all about him, “about the flavor and grit of tenement buildings in Spanish Harlem, and projects in Red Hook, and dance halls, and city parks, and about his own Paps, how he beat him, how he taught him to dance, as if we could hear Spanish in his movements….” Like Torres wrote about Paps’ dancing, I could hear the music of We the Animals. I, too, wanted to dance.
Torres continues with a good pace until almost the very end of the book when he unveils a major revelation. The unnamed speaker has a homosexual encounter with a bus driver. His family soon discovers a journal in which he wrote about his sexual fantasies with other men. I had no problem with the homosexuality aspect; however, the real issue lies with Torres and his storytelling skills. I felt as if my car had come to the end of a long road. There was a large gap where the road had been washed away. A chasm prevented me from getting to the other side. There was no bridge. Likewise, Torres needed to connect the brothers as little boys to the brothers as adults. He does not do this, in my view, and this leads to a disconnect. Time has passed, but the reader has no idea just how much. This reviewer needed more convincing. I wondered if perhaps this could be Torres’ story; is he the unnamed narrator? I feel compelled to mention I do not know Torres and this is just my thought as I read the novel.
It is at this point that the brothers drift apart. They are less “we” the animals and more the narrator as animal. The family even commits the youngest son. It is there where he truly feels like an animal: “I sleep with other animals in cages and in dens, down rabbit holes, on tufts of hay. They adorn me, these animals–lay me down, paw me, own me–crown me prince of their rank jungles.” He is adrift, alone, alien to his family and to himself. What is he without them? “I’ve lost my pack,” he fears.
Overall, Torres gives readers a brilliant, concentrated debut. He entices readers with vivid prose and shows how family is a precious thing indeed.