Justin Torres’s debut novel, We the Animals, can be described in one word – wow.
The book is a series of short vignettes about three brothers – half-Puerto Rican, half-white – growing up in upstate New York. The narrator begins the book using “we” as he describes the boys’ exploits around their neighborhood. The title’s metaphor is perfect, as demonstrated in the book’s opening lines:
“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 til our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; 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,” he writes in the poetic first story, “We Wanted Everything.”
The book starts out with stories that are funny and innocent, just like the boys. But life gets tougher for the children, especially as their young mother and father experience stressful jobs and marital problems. Torres’s dialogue and descriptions are so real that you feel like you’re in the room with the family.
Sometimes, the scenes can get stark.
“You talking about escaping?” Ma asked.
“Nobody,” Papa said. “Not us. Not them. Nobody’s ever escaping this.”
As the boys get older, the narrator uses “I” instead of “we” as he emerges as the smarter, more responsible brother. But the book – and the title’s metaphor – takes on an unexpected and disturbing tone as the family discovers a secret about the narrator.
We the Animals is a thin book – only 125 pages – that readers will zip through in a couple of hours. But the memories of the book will last with them.
• An interview with Torres and excerpt from the book can be found on “The Diane Rehm Show” website.
• Torres talked about his short story, “Reverting to a Wild State,” to The New Yorker.