We the Animals (Justin Torres)

20120215-153600.jpgTo be honest, I picked this book up because its cover reminded me of a houseboat vacation I ended up on with some friends at Lake Shasta several summers ago. That vacation was relaxing and fun…We the Animals was not relaxing, but it was definitely fun. It’s rare to encounter a book with such an amazingly spot-on title, but Justin Torres nailed it with this one. Throughout the novel there are references and descriptions that lend the protagonist and his two older brothers a sense of animalism that seems appropriate for the rough and tumble childhood they have. Just listen to the novel’s opening lines:

“We wanted more. We knocked the but 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 until 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” (1).

It’s full of vim and vigor, and Torres doesn’t ease up on that for the rest of the book. It’s a mad dash from start to finish, and I lost some sleep because I kept thinking, Just one more chapter. Okay, just one more and I’m done. This is my last one this time, for reals. Alright, it’s two in the morning. This is seriously the last one. You get the idea. It was a good book. A really good book. The language is fresh and alive, and Torres breathes life into his characters so quickly you wonder how there was time for it to happen.

We the Animals takes on poverty and love and abuse and race in a way that feels accessible and doesn’t overwhelm. There’s this incredibly lovely passage I keep returning to where the protagonist is talking about how his father dances. I want to share it with you, but before I do it’s important that you know that this is a young boy describing his drunk father — a father who is physically abusive to his sons and his wife consistently throughout the novel. Why is this important? Because I think Torres captures the pain inherent in an abusive relationship in the same instant he captures the depth of a father-son relationship. Here’s the passage:

“‘This is your heritage,’ he said, as if from this dance we could know about his own childhood, about the flavor and grit of tenement buildings in Spanish Harlem, and projects in Red Hook, and dance halls, and city parks, and about his own Paps, how he beat him, how he taught him to dance, as if we could hear Spanish in his movements, as if Puerto Rico was a man in a bathrobe, grabbing another beer from the fridge and raising it to drink, his head back, still dancing, still stepping and snapping perfectly in time.” (10-11)

I just love the idea of hearing Spanish in his movements, even though there’s a darker, more dangerous undertone to this passage. That being said, I do think there’s something potentially dangerous about the way Torres deals with sexuality in the novel. [Spoiler alert! I’m about to give the ending away!] There are hints dropped about the protagonist’s sexuality throughout the novel (he’s described as “pretty” at one point, and it’s mentioned that he’s weaker than his brothers — stuff like that), and at the end when we find out he craves sexual attention from other men. I read him as figuring out he’s gay, but Torres isn’t super specific about whether or not the protagonist is gay. You probably wonder how that could really be a question. Here’s how, and here’s what I think is potentially problematic: the protagonist’s sexual desires are tied up with the trauma of a lifetime of physical abuse from his father, and they are pathologized. By the end of the novel, he’s in high school and he has kept a journal of “imagined perversions, a violent pornography with [him]self at the center, with [him]self obliterated” (116). From the moment this journal is discovered by his family through to the end of the novel just 7 pages later, the protagonist is deemed mentally and/or emotionally damaged by his family, who clean him up and cart him off to be institutionalized. So here’s my concern: it seems like homosexuality requires hospitalization, medication, and therapy — like it’s a problem, a sickness, something to be cured. To me, that seems dangerous. What doesn’t seem dangerous is the way his father takes care of him after the discovery (but before the hospitalization) and the way his parents make efforts to show him that they still love him. So I’m undecided on the ending. I can’t condemn the book for it, and I don’t want to because it’s such a beautiful book. It’s just that the ending doesn’t sit very well with me yet. I haven’t figured out how to read it.

So when all is said and done, I found this book to be intensely moving. Difficult, anxiety-inducing, sweet, lovely. Worth the read, for sure.

GOOD FOR: Animal studies scholars; readers desperate for good writing; people looking for a story that shows how complex families can be.

BAD FOR: Those who can’t stomach depictions of child abuse; anyone seeking a light read; people who like a nice, neat ending.

GOOD WITH: Deathless, The Book of Want, and Rolling the R’s.

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