Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Justin Torres: We the Animals

Coming in at a slim 125 pages, We The Animals is one of the most densely rich novels a reader is likely to encounter. And it certainly is a novel, not a novella or a novel-in-stories, though many of the chapters can stand alone (and have been published as such). Still, in terms of theme and scope and story and plot, this is a superb and cohesive bildungsroman with an economy of language and symbol that borders on the poetic. And while the way that Torres masterfully crystallizes love and hurt and family and violence and loss and identity in this brief book is astonishing, the true miracle of the text is the way he manages to rebuild and then break your heart with each proceeding chapter.

We The Animals consists of a series of self-contained episodes (although I could just as easily call them stories or chapters) that follow the protagonist and his brothers growing up as three mixed white/Puerto Rican children of Brooklyn transplants in the predominantly white, quietly alienating landscape of upstate New York in the late Eighties and early Nineties. They straddle the poverty line, the mother working night shifts at a brewery and the father frequently unemployed. Early in the novel, the signs of trouble are telegraphed through their mother’s bruised face and their father’s covering lie. He tells the boys, “the dentist had been punching on her after she went under; he said that’s how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out.”

This falls in the “Seven” chapter, in which the boys go to see their ailing mother, bedridden with her injuries. It is the narrator’s seventh birthday, and the mother implores her son to stay six forever, so that “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 metaphors here are strong and guiding. The period of innocence in We The Animals is short, and the passage from turning to a “big boy” (i.e. over six) to being like their father is quick and seemingly inevitable. If the bildungsroman is about the narrator's transformation from child to adult, then his becoming like the father serves as the main peril and tension.

But for a while longer, they are boys. And as boys they are helpless and bound. The book takes its (rather instructive) epigraph from Plato:

Now a boy is of all wild beasts the most difficult to manage. For by how much the more he has the fountain of prudence not fitted up, he becomes crafty and keen, and the most insolent of wild beasts. On this account it is necessary to bind him, as it were, with many chains.
—Plato, The Laws
Unsurprisingly, the animal is a major motif, as is the binding. As we follow the protagonist and his three brothers growing up, they seem more of a pack than a family. They roam around the neighborhood getting into trouble, often beautifully transmuting their frustrations with their parents’ dysfunction into acts of minor violence and mimicries of the adult world.

For instance, in the “Talk to Me” chapter, nearly one-third of the way through the novel, there is a beautiful and devastating scene where two of the brothers hide in a crawl space sharpening sticks while the third locks himself in an upstairs room. Their father has returned home after taking off for weeks, and he is furious upon his return that the family didn’t answer the phone when they knew it was him calling. After the parents’ fracas has ceased, the two boys in the crawl space, relieved that it didn’t come to blows, pretend to call each other on the telephone. What follows is a series of “conversations” with the boys assuming the roles of their parent. Each iteration is a short, perceptive “dialogue” between the mother and the father, ending with the following exchange:

“What are we gonna do?”
“What do you mean, “what are we gonna do?’”
“Is it going to be like this forever?”
“No, baby, it’s not going to be like this forever.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“Well, we’ll do whatever it takes, I guess,” Joel said.
I was confused about who he was pretending to be.
“What does it take?”
“I’m not sure yet.” He stretched the cord like a bow and arrow, then let it fly.

This sort of agnosia seems to articulate the boys’ dilemma. It also lends structure to the novel. The boys neither know what to do, nor what they can do. Because the protagonists are children (at this point they are still bound closely together), they are subject to the whims and failings of their parents. Thus, the reader does not expect them to alter or act in defiance of their fate, as they are to observe it and cope with it, at least in the beginning. This, Torres handles beautifully and strategically, breaking and rebuilding the reader’s heart anew each chapter.

Not long after the “Talk to Me” chapter, the three boys all go with their father to his job as a night watchman. Because both parents work the night shift, the boys must sleep on the floor of the security office. As they make their way back out to the car afterwards, there is a confrontation with the white “morning shift” man, and it is clear that their father will lose his job. On the way home, he begins hitting the dash, “crying with his fist,” and the boys, in a confused and devastating attempt to raise his spirits, end up witnessing a breakdown, a nihilism in which he pronounces that the family will never escape their lives.

At some point then for our young protagonist, the family bonds become the ties that bind. There is not so much a glass ceiling in this novel as a choke chain: the pack of boys, with their resilient, big-hearted mother and flawed yet sympathetic father (Torres works miracles with character!) are limited to a landscape of uncertain employment, uncertain identities, and a constellation of modest dreams that lie just beyond their reach. All that they have is each other, for good or for ill.

But our narrator is different. As he grows, he has an intellect that his parents cherish (it will provide escape velocity,) and a sexual identity that he must hide from his family. As the book progresses, his peril transforms from the fate that he shares with his family to the risk he takes in breaking away from them. Near the end of the novel, there is a shift from the first person-plural—the “we” familiar to readers of The Virgin Suicides or “A Rose For Emily”—into an “I” and a “they.” There is also a maturation of consciousness, a sort of self-reflexive observer directly and effectively addressing the readers and telling them to look upon events as though the narrator weren’t also the main actor. This works very well. As the novel sprints towards it breathless finish, the reader feels the immediacy of the peril, while the need for the narrator to escape his world becomes clearer.

Detractors might claim that the book moves a little too quickly towards its end, but I disagree. And while I am not going to tell you explicitly what happens, what I want to say is that Torres captures the power of familial love—how it susutains and collapses and transforms--in a way that still manages to devastate your heart. One thing is certain: This book has tremendous love for its characters. Torres renders them beautifully, seeking the reader’s understanding, rather than making them pass judgment. In this book, passing judgment would mean telling the reader how to feel, and Torres is too good of a writer to do that. Rather, he simply makes the reader feel, deeply and profoundly, over and over. This book is a heartbreaker, and a sterling example of why we read.

Justin Torres
We the Animals
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011