With an author pedigree that includes the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, as well as a string of odd jobs, Justin Torres is primed to join the ranks of the best in the MFA generation. His debut novel, We The Animals, is concise, but shows a strong command of tone over the course of less than 150 pages, creating a sharp, hauntingly brief coming-of-age tale.
Written in first-person plural—always tough to pull off—We The Animals depicts a young family with three sons struggling in upstate New York. The father is Puerto Rican, the mother is white; their first child arrives when the parents are 16 and 14, respectively. Narrated by the youngest son, the novel opens around his seventh birthday. As the three brothers tear through their surroundings, they learn of their in-between cultural status, which sets them apart from other upstate New Yorkers. While sitting in a dingy bathtub as young children, they watch their parents make love. They endure their father leaving for a spell, and sit in the car as their mother decides to leave, then thinks twice and returns. The only typical element of the novel is the way the marriage constantly reaches a flashpoint before returning to a light simmer, while remaining in the background of the boys’ development enough to never become a problem.
In its best moments, We The Animals resembles the family aspects of The Tree Of Life, with racial undertones instead of economic shifts in the background. The whispers of “Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me” is certainly a mantra the boys could live by between marital upheavals and close moments with each parent. Using sparse language and brutal imagery, Torres achieves a brutal kind of lyricism, stitching together scenes of domestic violence, vandalism, and vacation into a patchwork of family misery.
The chapters resemble memories cobbled together in flashes with whatever visceral details of the moment stuck out. The boys quickly progress from childhood to early adulthood. As the narrator’s brothers become strong enough to contend with their father, they develop more animalistic tendencies for self-destruction. We The Animals is less interested in spatial details and more tightly focused on a family with too much pent-up primal rage to hold itself together. It’s more a trial-by-fire childhood than the pointed cultural observations of Cisneros’ The House On Mango Street.
The family surges down the path of most resistance together, until the narrator’s life suddenly breaks away into its own trajectory, thanks to a secret that lands with a soft impact, but reverberates back through the rest of the novel. Torres has crafted a fine debut that lives up to his credentials, pointed in all the right places and ending just at the right time.