We The Animals: A Novel

  • Justin Torres
  • Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt
  • 144 pp.
  • September 20, 2011

In this lyrical and fierce coming-of-age novel, the rivalry of three brothers is tested by their growing sense of identity.

Reviewed by Tony Medina

In We the Animals, first-time novelist Justin Torres constructs a taut, claustrophobic web-like world in which three rambunctious brothers come of age in upstate New York. Their seasons of childhood chaos and discontent are sprinkled with humor, profanity, boredom, clowning, sibling rivalry and boyhood mayhem.

Told in a series of episodic vignettes, Torres’ well-crafted bildungsroman is closest to prose poetry, with metaphors that cut like razors and reflect sharply the light of disillusionment from the vantage point of the youngest brother.

The three stair-step boys (Joel, Manny and the narrator) live with their Brooklyn-born father and mother. Although their house is more than large enough for five, what is most peculiar is how crowded it seems. The boys are almost never alone, as if they are joined at the hip. All three do everything together — sleep and even bathe.

The mother (Mom) works the graveyard shift at a brewery. The father (Paps) is a security guard when his machismo and temper do not get him fired.

The mother, overworked and overwhelmed, often doesn’t know whether it’s evening or time for school. She is presented as confused, airheaded and at times overly sentimental, a helpless victim to Paps’ unpredictable, explosive bouts of profanity and brutality. Everyone walks on eggshells. It gets so bad that the oldest child plans to kill him. Driven by pent-up anger and frustration, Joel plots with his hesitant brothers.

This intense glimpse into domestic dysfunctional demeanor doesn’t seem like much, at first glance, given the normalcy of this behavior pattern in our culture. But when you consider the racial dynamics, Torres walks the fine line of avoiding stereotypes while depicting the white mother as a victim to the black Puerto Rican’s brutishness. When Paps is seen in a more tender light, showing playful affection with his wife, this eventually turns into an outward display of over-the-top sexuality, conducted in front of the children, whose eyes seem to be everywhere. It is the youngest son, who remains nameless, who tells the tale from a mature distance, carving it from his memory.

Torres’ prose is powerful. But his stockpiling of similes and metaphors can verge on the indulgent. His persistent use of the pronoun “We,” successful rhythmically and as an incantation, occasionally becomes staid and ineffectual. The novel’s emotional gravity stems from Torres’ astute powers of observation and the cumulative effects of each meticulously constructed scene taken as snapshots. They expand and accelerate with each subsequent quick-flash chapter.

Note the taut, syntactical muscularity and psychological depth of the young narrator as he comes to grips with his own complicated awareness and identity and his growing sense of alienation in the suffocating stranglehold of his family:

“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 a 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.”

It is the narrator’s mother who sees him, the youngest, as the family’s saving grace, the intelligent and sensitive one most likely destined for college and success. This creates a tension between the oldest and youngest brothers that comes to a head when the three are in nearby woods smoking and getting drunk. The rivalry is so palpable it simmers to a violent boiling point, forcing the narrator to aggressively confront his true self.

In a dream-like sequence of tightly drawn, tense culminating chapters, the narrator seeks escape from his brothers, father and mother. At a nearby bus terminal, the bus he boards for New York City never leaves the station. The shattering reality he must face is as frightening and harmful as what his mother finds in his secret journal.

Justin Torres is a gifted fictionist with the powers and prowess of a poet. In We the Animals, he confronts head-on in lyrical, incantatory and no-holds-barred ferocious prose issues of masculinity, identity and the complex binds of family that can be a straightjacket, noose or gauze.

Tony Medina, a professor of creative writing at Howard University, is the author of several books, including My Old Man Was Always on the Lam, Broke on Ice and the forthcoming An Onion of Wars.

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