blackbirdonline journalSpring 2013 Vol. 12 No. 1
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Review | We the Animals, by Justin Torres
                Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

spacer We the Animals

Young adult novels often fall into the realm of fantasy or sci-fi—these books crowd the bestseller lists, and their movie adaptations swell numbers at the box office. Think vampires and werewolves, witches and wizards, aliens and time travel. This type of young adult literature successfully transforms the harshness of life, of growing up—ever-confusing to adolescents (and, perhaps unbeknownst to them, to adults)—into something magical and adventurous, which perhaps explains their popularity: they act as escapes.

One could not categorize Justin Torres’s slim first novel, We the Animals, a coming-of-age story set in upstate New York, as genre fiction—certainly not as an escape. In this tale of adolescence, the themes and realities Torres explores apply alike to young adults and older adults. Torres’s book, which relies on a structure of spare and loosely connected vignettes, details the traumatic upbringing of three brothers in a mixed-race family. While still teenagers, Paps, the Puerto Rican father, and Ma, the white mother, had their three children: Manny, the eldest; Joel, the middle child; and the unnamed narrator and protagonist of the novel, the youngest sibling, all between the ages of six and ten at the outset of the book.

“We wanted more,” the book begins, and gathers momentum: “We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock.” Torres uses “we” as his primary pronoun for most of the book, demonstrating grammatically that the boys constitute a pack of wild animals—a survival mechanism for the siblings as they witness their parents’ volatile relationship and desperate circumstances.

The inner family tension arises from a myriad of causes. Paps abuses Ma and the sons and often leaves for days or weeks without warning. Ma works night shifts at a brewery to make ends meet for a family constantly strapped for money and food. The biracial children must endure the role of the “other” throughout the book—even within their family, their heritage. (“Mutts,” Paps calls them. “You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican.”) They don’t quite belong anywhere but with each other, and indeed, Torres rarely shows them interacting with characters outside the immediate family.

With its simultaneously controlled and lyrical prose, this story doesn’t use fantastical or sci-fi elements, but Torres endows his characters with raw, animal-like qualities—both feral and fragile—which subtly blur the lines between human and beast: Paps’s mouth “snarled and smiled both;” at dinner, the “hungry, impatient, clamoring” boys  throw “our heads back on our necks,” conjuring the image of baby birds; and when Ma’s “mascara was all smudged and her hair was stiff and thick, curling black around her face and matted down . . . She looked like a raccoon caught digging in the trash: surprised, dangerous.” Torres describes the children as “frightened and vengeful—little animals, clawing at what we needed.” These animal comparisons, a theme throughout the book, elevate each compressed and lyrical vignette into a short allegory, almost a dark fairy tale—a tone that works especially effectively with a child’s perspective.

By crafting metaphors from the subtle observations of the actions of the family members, Torres hints at the tumult always simmering beneath the surface:

We had a blue rubber ball, and we each stood in one of the sections and smacked the ball with our palms, from one to the other, trying to keep the ball alive. With each smack, we imitated our Paps.

“This is for raising your voice—”

“And this is for embarrassing me in public—”

“And this is for doing something—”

“And this is for doing nothing—”

“And this—”

In another scene, the narrator, Manny, and Joel are smashing tomatoes and their mother’s tubes of lotion with a mallet in the kitchen, coating themselves with the gooey mess, when Ma walks in on them:

She called us to her side and gently ran a finger across each of our cheeks, cutting through the grease and sludge . . . 

“That’s what you looked like when you slid out of me,” she whispered. “Just like that.”

We all groaned, but she kept on talking about it, about how slimy we were coming out, about how Manny was born with a full head of hair and it shocked her . . . 

“Do it to me.”

“What?” we asked.

“Make me born.”

The clarity of Torres’s writing, combined with the compression of each vignette, imbues small statements such as “make me born” with a metaphorical weight—let me start over, Ma is saying, poignant especially in the context of the following image: “Our mother yelped and slid to the floor and stayed there, her eyes wide open and ketchup everywhere, looking like she had been shot in the back of the head.”

Here, as elsewhere in the novel, the conflation of human and animalistic qualities also allows Torres to merge notions of love and violence, a confusion that heavily informs the family’s life. In one scene, Paps tracks down the boys after they’ve run away and deals them a particularly heavy beating. Manny explains to the narrator that Paps used his fists because he was “scared, that something serious could have happened to us.” But this rationale, of course, overlooks the obvious—something serious has already happened, is happening, in how Paps treats his children. Even in some of the tenderer and more affectionate vignettes, the dormant violence spills over and explodes—as in one scene, when the narrator leans in to kiss Ma, still recovering from wounds Paps has inflicted on her:

Those bruises looked so sensitive, so soft, so capable of hurt, and this thrill, this spark, surged from my gut, spread through my chest, this wicked tingle, down the length of my arms and into my hands. I grabbed hold of both of her cheeks and pulled her toward me for a kiss.

The pain traveled sharp and fast to her eyes, pain opened up her pupils into big black disks. She ripped her face from mine and shoved me away from her, to the floor.

In this way, in an isolated family where the parents can’t separate the tangled strands of love, pain, and rage, the children absorb and re-create the volatile and wildly oscillating energies of their parents. Their adolescence resembles one of the fairy tales out of the Brothers Grimm: the innocent can’t find that trail of bread crumbs to safety.

Torres’s strongest vignettes subtly converse with one another. In one section, the three brothers watch as their father digs a mysterious ditch in the backyard.

“He’s digging a grave,” whispered Joel . . . 

“But whose grave?”

“How am I supposed to know? Ma’s grave, I guess. Maybe it’s your grave.”

“No way,” I said. “No way that’s my grave.”

Paps kept digging and digging, shovels full of dirt; dirt stuck to the sweat on his back and smudged across his cheeks and forehead . . . He dug until he could barely breathe, until he collapsed, wheezing, in the dirt . . . 

“I’ll never get out of here,” Paps said . . . “Give your ol’ man a hand, why don’t ya?” We . . . took hold of his wrists and tugged and tugged, but he didn’t budge; instead he pulled us in with him and held us there in his big arms.

This joyful, but ultimately haunting, scene echoes one in which Paps risks losing his job as a security guard for bringing the sons to his overnight shift. “‘We’re never gonna escape this,’” Paps says to Ma . . . “‘Nobody . . . Not us. Not them. Nobody’s ever escaping this.’ He raised his head and swept his arm out in front of him. ‘This.’” In light of this vignette, the ditch episode takes on an eerier tone: Can we ever escape our upbringing? Must we forever stumble into the same holes as our parents?

These questions, at the core of the novel, gnaw increasingly at the reader as the book reels toward its final scenes. As the boys grow older, the narrator begins to extricate himself from the pack mentality of his siblings. Differences start to emerge between them: the narrator applies himself in school and shows a drive and intellect unprecedented in Manny and Joel, who grow more and more similar to their parents; eventually the narrator reveals his homosexuality. He hides this self-discovery from his family, sharing his thoughts only in a journal, where he details his sexual fantasies. The “we,” so abundant in the first three-quarters of the novel, mutates into “I” and “they” as the narrator grows wary of his older brothers:

They grew up wiry, long-torsoed, and lean. Their kneecaps, their muscles, bulged like knots on a rope. Broad foreheads and strong ridges along the brow announced their resemblance. Their cheeks hollowed, their lips barely covered their teeth and gums, as if the jaw and the skull inside wanted out.

They hunched and they skulked. They jittered. They scratched . . . 

And me now. Look at me . . . See how I made them uneasy. They smelled my difference—my sharp, sad, pansy scent.

At this point in the novel, the narrator’s otherness painfully begins to separate him from Manny and Joel and the rest of their tightly insular family. While Ma, Paps, and the siblings often inflict pain on one another, they also, conversely, provide each other’s only support and joy through all the turbulence—support now unavailable to the isolated narrator.

Though Torres’s book does not offer up a conventional happy ending, he keeps the novel’s conclusion open-ended. Torres’s novel witnesses the necessity of finding one’s own escape in the face of harsh realities. And as we observe the narrator’s confused sexual awakening and, especially, his subsequent ostracism from the rest of his family, the animalistic qualities of the characters acquire more textured connotations, suitable for a novel ultimately about growing up, changing—feeling both wild and foreign in one’s body and surroundings—and crafting a separate identity apart from one’s kin.  end

Justin Torres’s debut novel, We The Animals (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), was the winner of the 2012 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Torres is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he is a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

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