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Justin Torres' "We the Animals" : A Review

Justin Torres'

Television has shifted our notion of what a family looks like, from the Bill Cosby and Tony Danza ‘Father Knows Best’ model of the 80s to the less than harmonious families we get today on shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men. We are what we consume and none of us is buying into a Brady Bunch reality any longer. No family is perfect, we now wholeheartedly agree. But to call as many as we do dysfunctional is to misuse the term. It’s like applying the word depressive to one who is having a sad day. Fortunately most people never experience the true nature of depression, the disease, nor have they had to endure growing up in a family that is truly dysfunctional.

 I’m guessing, however, that Justin Torres, author of the newly released novella, We the Animals, did. Not being privy to the autobiography of the author, I only know what the details listed on the inside flap at the back of the book tell me (okay, and the information Google has at the ready). Torres attended the illustrious Iowa Writer’s Workshop and has published short stories in some rather impressive literary magazines, including, most recently, the New Yorker. Even before I had learned that the book was semi-autobiographical it wasn’t hard to sense, the way, say, you feel you know something about Sean Penn from the characters he portrays on screen (i.e. not exactly the Mr. Rogers of your neighbourhood), that at least some of the dark and at times horrible things that transpire in this slim and beautifully written debut must have come from Mr. Torres’ own experiences.

Ultimately, though, playing that memoir vs. fiction guessing game is, to me, as innocuous as questioning how much of the real Mark Zuckerburg story wound up in The Social Network. As a reader what I care most about is story, story and the quality of writing, quality of writing and the truth of those words and the power they contain. A great book makes you care and allows you – sometimes forces you – to see things, to feel things, to live through experiences that, in the case of We the Animals, you like to hope were never real but fear must have been.

Torres’ novella came to me by way of a pronouncement made in Esquire magazine this summer that it was the best book I’d read all fall. Quite the statement considering Michael Ondaatje, Haruki Murakami and Jeffrey Eugenides were all about to release books as well. I knew, though, as soon as I read We the Animals’ first lines, that there was a power here. The writer had a story to tell. I was to listen.

Sometimes we take pleasure in the big word wielding writer. That William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Herman Melville muscular kind of show-offy brainy, brauny scribe who can fuzz our brains good with words that have us scurrying off to our old-fashioned eight-pound Webster dictionaries. Other times you want a writer who can evoke whole scenes with barely a three-syllable word in sight. The old Hemingway trick. Short, simple sentences; clear, little words. Torres is of this latter school, crafting everyday language into art. You hear it instantly, in the book’s opening, the music of it:

We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. 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 beat; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

It is in the pure readerly pleasure of the rhythm of the language, in the quality of the pared down prose that Torres provides us some respite, respite from a hard life, a life filled with wild and sometimes wonderful surprises, but also shockingly unforeseen tragedies.

The ‘we’ of the story is the sensitive protagonist and his two older brothers, none of whom are older than ten at the story’s start. Their Puerto Rican father and white mother are in their mid-twenties, having bore their children whilst still teenagers – their mother was fourteen when her first son was born. Perhaps it is the nature of how this story unfolds, more still of how it is told, that in reviewing it I am inclined to give away as little as possible. The book is so much about revealing information slowly, carefully, artfully, dreadfully. This is not, I’m sure you have by now gathered, an easy book. But it certainly is a powerful one. Torres’ masterstroke might very well be the way he rushes the reader through, like his very young protagonist and two older brothers, swaying us violently between the manic excitement of boys benefiting from far too much freedom on the one end and the sinister dangers laid out by parents as unpredictable and unstable as these on the other. When dad’s not home, which too often is the case, mom does not seem to care, not about cooking, or cleaning or any of those things a mom is expected to do. It’s far worse when dad is around. It is worse because of how good and fun and wonderfully dancing-in-the-kitchen exciting it can be one minute and how terrifyingly abusively wrong the next.

Like so many modern tales, We the Animals is not attempting to provide a moral. It’s not going to provide easy answers. Yet so much of what captivates the reader and keeps this book from drowning in its own devastating anecdotes of abuse and parental terror, is the childlike way in which the story is told, the energy of it, the hope of it, the art and innocence of a seven year-old boy and what it seems, in opposition to all logic, he manages to grow up through and endure.