“Torres demonstrates a mastery of prose seldom encountered in first books. It’s an exhilarating beginning for a young writer.”
RIGOBERTO GONZÁLEZ on Justin Torres’s We the Animals
and CAROL SNOW on Christopher Grant’s Teenie.
Man Weighing Himself © Dan McCleary 2004
We the Animals
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 2011. 144 pp.
The American novel has given us its share of troubled young protagonists. Think of Holden Caulfield, or Scout Finch; of Rhoda Penmark in William March’s 1954 novel The Bad Seed, or of the Curtis brothers gang in S.E. Hinton’s classic The Outsiders. More recently, we’ve had Chappie from Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone, Legs Sandowsky from Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire, and the various narrators of Junot Díaz’s Drown. These youngsters, all burdened with the universal adolescent struggle to fit in — their individual values, dreams, and desires butting up against familial or societal pressure to conform — appeal to us largely for their willingness to say, think, and do the things so many of us wish we could, or had. In so doing, they become antiheroes, survivors of the hard-won transitional stages between childhood and adulthood, freedom and obligation.
Justin Torres’s debut novel We the Animals follows not one but three of these antiheroes — the unnamed narrator and his older brothers Manny and Joel (all three under 10 at the beginning of the novel) — as they navigate both the usual adolescent in-betweens and another, more culturally specific one: They are, as their father (who they call “Paps”) tells them, “Mutts … You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican.” But the brothers don’t suffer this condition in isolation or silence; in fact, they revel in their common in-betweenness: “The magic of God is three.” This strong sibling bond provides much needed support to all three boys as they struggle to survive their parents’ troubled marriage in an economically depressed home. The boys run amok “like animals” — they refer to themselves also as, “Us brothers, Us Musketeers” — an unholy trinity of rambunctious and destructive pre-adolescents always hungering for more, “more volume, more riots.” They associate with no other friends, cousins or neighborhood kids because, the narrator tells us, “we didn’t need them; we had each other for games and hunts and scraps.”