We the Animals by Justin Torres: A Review

In the interest of trying new things, here is a book review by me, someone who has never written a book review before. Even if you don’t read my book review, you should go read this book. My kindle said it would only take 1 hour and 27 minutes to read. No excuses.

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You can call it what you want, a coming-of-age novel, a novel about brothers, about families, about what it feels like to not quite belong. You could call this book any of those things and be right, but at its core, this is a novel about perception, about perspective, about what it feels like to live in a world that is constantly shifting, how these shifts change you, and how they change the people you love.

The story is told, technically, from the perspective of the youngest of three brothers, though throughout most of the novel, Torres uses first-person plural, telling the story as if from the brother’s joint perspective. The boys are considered a unit of three, and while we see hints of the detachment to come, it is not until the end of the novel, the intentionally jarring moment when his two brothers become “they” that we truly understand the reality of their separation.

The volatile world these boys live in is controlled in part by their Puerto Rican father, and their young, white mother, “this confused goose of a woman, this stumbler, this gusher, with her backaches and headaches and her tired, tired ways, this uprooted Brooklyn creature, this tough talker, always with tears when she told us she loved us, her mixed-up love, her needy love, her warmth…” This is a book about coming to terms with the fact that all people are made of more than on part. Their mother: part compassion, part despair. Their father: part leader, part ticking bomb. The boys: part Puerto Rican, part white, part brother, part self.

Nearly every scene demonstrates the fragile nature of their equilibrium. A fun trip to the lake ends with the youngest almost drowning after his father lets go of him, tries to force him into learning to swim; their mother’s confused, late night attempt to bake a cake for Manny ends with Joel refusing to go the neighbor’s for butter because it’s midnight, and not even Manny’s birthday (his mother’s response to this clarification, simply: “I hate my life.”)

This is a book about fragility, about trying to diffuse a bomb without an instruction manual, without knowing which wires to rearrange, without knowing how the bomb even works at all. You can see the boys watch for it, for the slightest hint of the change, the faint beeps that signal the explosion. This watchfulness can be seen as the boys dance playfully with their father as he cooks dinner:

Paps turned the stereo even louder, so loud that if we screamed, no one would have heard, so loud that Paps felt far away and hard to get to, even though he was right there in front of us. Then Paps grabbed a can of beer from the fridge, and our eyes followed the path of the can to his lips. We took in the empties stacked up on the counter behind him, then we looked at each other. Manny rolled his eyes and kept dancing, and so we got in line and kept dancing too, except now Manny was Papa Goose, it was him we were following.

From there, the father yells commands to his boys. Dance like you’re poor, he says, like you’re rich, like you’re white, like you’re Puerto Rican. They have fun trying. They are enjoying themselves. Then the room changes. “Mutts,” he calls them.“You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican.” This is a book about wanting to be something else than what you are.

This book, though short, works as a sort of bell curve of events. The scene in which the father tries to teach the youngest to swim mirrors itself at the end of the book, as the father holds his son over the edge of Niagara Falls, asks him he knows what would happen if he let go. This time he doesn’t. This time he pulls him back to safety.

The dancing returns as the youngest brother, the unnamed narrator, alone with his father only because his brothers are flunking and can’t miss school, dances alone in a museum while he waits for his father to pick him up, only his father catches him and watches him dance from the doorway. This time he does not call him a mutt. This time, the dance isn’t about what he isn’t, but what he is:

“I stood in the doorway, watching you dance, and you know what I was thinking?” He paused, but I didn’t answer or turn to look at him; instead I closed my eyes.

“I was thinking how pretty you were,” he said. “Now isn’t that an odd thing for a father to think about his son? But that’s what it was. I was standing there, watching you dance and twirl and move like that, and I was thinking to myself, Goddamn, I got me a pretty one.”

Maybe this is a coming-out story, though, if it is, it is more than that. It is about coming to terms with yourself, your sexuality, your emotions, your past. This unnamed narrator, this youngest brother, is more than the sum of his parts. He is Puerto Rican and white and gay. He is a brother and a son and an individual. He is sensitive and strong and unstable. When it comes down to it, this is a story about realizing that you are the bomb, about not knowing how to diffuse yourself, about no one else knowing either.

We the Animals is more than a story about an abusive father, or an emotionally inept mother, or two violent brothers headed nowhere good. What makes this story so powerful is the way in which the narrator makes us feel so much love for these broken people. At the end of the book, each of these characters redeem themselves in some small way, reminding us that while he doesn’t necessarily fit into his family, he belongs to them, and they belong to him.

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