We the Animals by Justin Torres can be difficult to read. Not because it’s not brilliant and startling—it is, but because the book can be intensely visceral, angry, and violent. Because the book also has moments of great tenderness, I felt swayed and unmoored, stranded somewhere between excitement and dread. I realized that surrendering to the characters’ highs would only allow me to feel the lows even more.
To his credit, Torres made me feel the absolute bond and protectiveness of this family. At the same time I felt what the narrator (he is never named) must have felt—claustrophobic within the suffocating bonds of the family.
Like the title, the male siblings in We the Animals are described as “animal-like”; at once unruly, greedy, and hungry (in a very real sense and hungry for all life has to offer), they spend their days in a tribe of three, doing what they can to survive and squeezing joy out of life when they can.
They forage for food in an Old Man’s garden, trampling his vegetables and stuffing tomatoes in their mouths only to feel guilty afterwards; they smash a camper’s window and wait breathless at the end of the road to see what awaits; they dangle their feet off a bridge as cars whiz by, and when the wind comes they lift kites made out of garbage bags to the sky.
Torres describes this insatiable desire (for manhood, for being understood, for power) in the opening pages of the first chapter, “We Wanted More”: “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 volume on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men … we wanted muscles on our skinny arms … we were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”
Much of the time the children are left to their own devices, essentially uncared for by a mother who is exhausted after working the night shift at the local brewery and by a father who works as a night guard. They are afraid to ask for food because their mother might get furious. When she offers them a bowl of soup, they hungrily, gratefully eat.
Yet in spite (or because of?) their parents’ neglect, they feel a heart-breaking connection and loyalty to them. The mother is described as weak. Although she seems more solid than the father (she keeps her job), the narrator is often disgusted by her.
He may feel that her love—sickeningly sweet at times—is false. In one story she begs him to not grow up and become like the other boys or a man like “Paps.” She tells him he should remain six forever. The narrator does not trust her sugary words even as he wants to. He may know they are twisted or exaggerated or not the entire truth. He sits there uncomfortably; and indeed she ends up flinging him to the floor.
There are so many painful moments in these stories, moments when the characters are about to reveal something, only to act violently instead. But even as the narrator feels uneasy about his relationship with his mother, he notices everything about her. He often talks of her flesh, her smallness, her bird-like bones.
When she pulls her work boots and socks off after a long shift at the brewery, the narrator notices the fluff from the socks clinging to her painted toenails. He feels both repulsed and curious about the sight. It’s as if he tries not to notice, but he can’t help noticing. He thinks his mother should stop crying. He can’t stand it when she cries, but that is because he can do nothing to help her.
The relationship the narrator has with his father is different. Whereas the narrator feels sickened by his mother, he’s in awe of his father. His father, Paps, a Puerto Rican from Brooklyn (much is made in the book of the mother being white and the father being Puerto Rican) is hard, confident, strong, and fully masculine. He also seems to see his son for who he is.
In one chapter called “Niagara” the narrator accompanies his father to Niagara Falls. There the father holds the boy way over the water almost daring him to commit suicide. Later the boy goes into the gift shop where he watches old footage of people getting into barrels and plunging down the falls, many to their deaths. The boy begins to dance by himself. The boy is aware that the father is watching him, but continues.
The father tells him later, “I was standing there, watching you dance and twirl and move like that, and I was thinking to myself, Goddamn, I got me a pretty one.” This seems to be the father’s way of telling his son that he may accept his son’s sexuality—the narrator is gay—but the mother does not.
The immediate family is everything in We the Animals. Rather than showing that “a village raises a child,” the book shows children raising themselves, fighting and grieving and hoping, while their parents alternately abandon them and almost strangle them with a cloying watchfulness.
In the story “Ducks” the mother has decided to leave the father, but because she has no place to go she just drives to a local park (with all their clothing packed in trash bags, “the white plastic stretched to a milky translucence and here and there ripped through by the angled edges of letters and envelopes and pictures.”)
The children end up on a highway, dangerously perched by a rush of cars. When a woman gets out of her car to rescue them, the narrator recounts: “We refused politely, looking down at our feet, but she kept insisting that she could not, in good conscience, leave us there, until finally Manny stood and said, “Listen bitch,” and picked up a chunk of pavement, and then Joel followed suit…” This fierce loyalty to a violent family is hard to watch. The author dares us to despise his characters, but we don’t have the heart to.
I want to talk a little about the form of We the Animals. The book is arranged in short vignettes or chapters with mostly one word titles: “Seven,” “Lina,” “Ducks,” “Trash Kites,” “Niagara,” etc. These stories are so dense and image-driven that they almost read like prose poems. Although the plot is propelled forward, the chapters are self-contained. Also the book is a scant 128 pages so as a “coming of age” story much is left out or implied rather than told. As I was reading the book, I was at first questioning what I was reading—a novel? connected short stories? a memoir? prose poems?
The mixing of genres is exciting. Ultimately it doesn’t matter; a book is good or not, but still my mind would hum with wondering how true the stories were to life. And if this book is being presented as a novel, it just doesn’t feel like one.
The last few chapters dealing with the narrator’s sexuality are interesting to read in contrast to the first parts of the book when the narrator is younger. In these we get flashes of who the narrator might become. We feel that he will finally break free from the struggle within his family.
The narrator realizes that he must leave his brothers and parents behind to become himself, but the idea is terrifying as well. (He’s put in the psychiatric ward when his mother finds his journal, which fully describes his sexual longings for men). One feels that although the narrator will leave his tough, macho brothers behind, he will never quite find, no matter how brief, those moments of utter freedom he found when he was a part of three.