Skip to main content

We the Animals


We the Animals

There’s probably room to debate whether a “novel” that weighs in at a mere 125 pages qualifies for that category. But there’s no dispute that Justin Torres’s brutal, tender story of three brothers growing up on the edge of poverty is a stomach-grinding portrait of a family in turmoil and the toll it exacts on those boys.
"...a declaration of the arrival of a significant new voice on the American literary scene."
Manny, Joel and the unnamed narrator are three sons born within the space of three years to a Puerto Rican father and a white mother, barely beyond childhood themselves when their first child enters the world. Ma works the night shift in a brewery in upstate New York, and Paps lurches from one marginal job --- like the security guard position he loses when his shift replacement discovers the boys have been spending the night with him --- to another. The parents brawl over Paps’s ill-considered purchase of a “big dick pickup truck,” and each flees when the pressure of their circumstances becomes unbearable. Little or nothing seems to occur offstage, and the boys experience their parents’ relationship in all its intensity, from beatings administered one moment to lovemaking the next. And in all that, they slowly absorb the painful truth that the capacity to inflict pain or extend love are, for this small tribe, two sides of the same coin.
The novel unfolds in short, energetic bursts, tight vignettes that gradually give insight into the brothers’ lives. Their feral existence is symbolized in the late-night raid they make on the garden of an old man who calls them “invaders, marauders, scavengers, the devil’s army on earth.” The narrator’s near death by drowning on a night when his father, “on his way to becoming indestructible,” tries to teach the boy and his mother to swim by abandoning them in the waters of a dark lake reflects the frequent cruelty of their father’s child rearing. When the narrator’s seventh birthday coincides with a brutal beating inflicted on his mother, she begs him with a poignancy that’s universal to remain “six plus one,” because “if you stay my baby boy, then I’ll always have you, and you won’t shy away from me, won’t get slick and tough, and I won’t have to harden my heart.”
The contrast between the searing images of family violence and the taut lyricism of Torres’s prose is one of the most striking aspects of the novel, as in this passage:
“‘What we gotta do is, we gotta figure out a way to reverse gravity, so that we all fall upward, through the clouds and sky, all the way to heaven,’ and as he said the words, the picture formed in my mind: my brothers and me, flailing our arms, rising, the world telescoping away, falling up past the stars, through space and blackness, floating upward, until we were safe as seed wrapped in the fist of God.”
There is a pulsating energy to Torres’s account, one that’s fueled by descriptions of the brothers’ collective self-image (“We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”) or their almost electrically charged movement (“They hunched and they skulked. They jittered. They scratched.”).
By the end of the novel, the paths of the boys, now moving into adulthood, begin to diverge. The elder two seem destined to settle into the grim path forged by their father, while the narrator experiences the first stirrings of a literary career and a discovery of his sexuality that will divide him from his family.
For all its darkness, WE THE ANIMALS is at its best when it exposes the fierce core of love that can slumber in the troubled heart of even the most damaged families. It’s also a declaration of the arrival of a significant new voice on the American literary scene.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 13, 2011

We the Animals
by Justin Torres

  • Publication Date: August 30, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0547576722
  • ISBN-13: 9780547576725