The Wild Struggle to Come of Age: Justin Torres’ We the Animals
We the Animals, by Justin Torres, is like a nature documentary. Its characters are wild, impulsive, and violent. Their days are marked by smashing tomatoes, near-drowning, sleeping on hard floors; swollen faces, breaking trees, roaming the cold and snowy nights; tearing up gardens, digging holes, flicking, smacking, swiping each other. But you won't see this on Animal Planet. Its subject is not a pride of lions, a pack of wolves, or a pod of whales, but rather a mixed-race family living -- surviving -- in upstate New York.
The family is led by Ma and Paps (white and Puerto Rican respectively). Ma spends her days flustered. She's in a constant state of fatigue and recovery -- the effects of graveyard shifts and her husband's abuse and affairs. Paps is a broad man who can't control his desperate temper. He regularly thrashes whatever or whomever is closest at hand: the car dashboard, his wife, his sons. Ma and Paps' marriage is, though, one of extremes; despite the abuse, they show an intense, primal attraction for each other. Still, their marriage, no matter how intense, takes a backseat to Ma's love for (bless her soul) her three boys.
The narrator and his older brothers, Manny and Joel, function as a pack with a single voice. Together, they mimic their parents; they practice their own violence. They bully one another, threaten strangers, break saplings and windows. As they grow up, their mixed-race becomes apparent to them; they're separate from other boys and, later, separate from each other, as Manny and Joel flunk classes ("Puerto Rican behavior") and the narrator becomes bookish ("white behavior"). But the narrator's sexual coming-of-age, and its discovery, becomes the greatest threat yet to their camaraderie.
Torres' prose is concise and disciplined, while sometimes reaching a charming lyricism. Such prose fits well with the episodic structure of We the Animals. It provides each vignette with both an epiphany and haunting resonance. But the novel's most obvious (and boldest) idiosyncrasy is its point of view. The story begins in the first-person plural, emphasizing the boys as one unit (much like in The Virgin Suicides), only to end in the first-person singular. This shift signals a profound change in the family's dynamic and, more importantly, in the unnamed narrator.
In the end, We the Animals is more than a simple nature documentary. Although the family is wild and animalistic, their characterizations are too personal, their emotions too profoundly human, to be labeled documentation or reportage. As for Torres, who has proven himself already bold, he certainly appears to be a writer with much to offer.