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'We the Animals' stuns

Justin Torres' debut novel is a must-read.


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I'm not the kind of person to read a book in one sitting, but Justin Torres' debut novel "We the Animals" isn't a typical kind of book. First, it's 124 pages long. Second, it escapes being classified as a novella because it does as much in its slim measure as anything you've read in a couple of decades. Reading it may not take long, but it's the literary equivalent of punching out your relatives and eating the Thanksgiving turkey by yourself.

That's an appropriate metaphor because "We the Animals" is about family, the best and worst elements. It's written in the first person plural of three young brothers, a narrative choice that would normally be reserved for a grad school indulgence and classified as trickery, but once you're faced with these three boys clinging together for their collective emotional life, Torres shows you just where and how you were wrong.

Written not so much in vignettes as bursts, the three and four-page chapters give us peeks, as through a peephole into a dim room, of about half a dozen years in the lives of these three adolescents in upstate New York. Their Puerto Rican father and white mother flail and grapple at each other for years, getting bits of clothing, hair and skin in their clutches, between their teeth, under their fingernails, and all within view of these three seemingly doomed kids.

Irreconcilably, the book feels at once spare, and then like its seams will fail from all its author is laying before us. The prose is so dense that it feels there's no way it could be more than that, the assemblage of scenes finally giving way to a portrait.

Torres writes with the emotional distance of a 7-year-old watching his life unfurl in scenes he doesn't understand, only to bring it back with moments so eviscerating as to leave no doubt of their consequence. In other words, he makes us adults. We grow hard to the world as our protagonists do.

As the characters mature, the narrative "we" becomes "they" and "I" as one of the brothers becomes more cerebral, emotional. He goes through a sexual awakening and is excluded. But the details here are unimportant. This is a book about youth and brotherhood. It's a book about bad parenting. But more than anything, it's a book about how the worse things are out there, the more you embed yourselves in anything safe that's around you.

Annie Dillard said, "... in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse." I imagine Torres in a stockroom, pen and paper spread out on top of a cardboard box, surrounded by books and anguished memories.

The youth of boys is filled with fire. Some are flung against the world so hard as to have it smothered out of them. If there's assurance to be found in "We the Animals," it's that no matter how cold we grow — huddled, pensive, with curved backs — sometimes it's only family that can warm us again.

Family gives us our heat. It then takes our heat away from us. It is in both love and hate that we are all forged.

Torres has spilled onto the scene, big beating heart in hand. The book is short because it must've been absolutely exhausting to write. But that doesn't matter because you'll read it three times.

But most of all, "We the Animals" will enrapture the literary world, as it should, because of its lyricism. It feels like reading James Agee by lightning strike.

Torres writes like this is the only book he has in him. I certainly hope that's not the case.


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