September 2011

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore


We the Animals by Justin Torres

Justin Torres's debut novel centers around three brothers who grow up in a world of imagination, neglect, and pain in an undisclosed upstate New York town. They fancy themselves alternately as the Three Musketeers; the Three Bears; the Three Stooges; Alvin and the Chipmunks; Frankenstein, the bride of Frankenstein, and the baby of Frankenstein; and even the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Children of a Puerto Rican father and white mother in a town populated by poor whites warned to avoid race mixing, these brothers are "half-breeds" with overworked, absent parents who rarely manage to provide the basics of food, safety, or companionship. Early on, the brothers learn to be wary of their father's rage and their mother's confusion, creating their own wild ways to play.

Narrated by the youngest of the three boys, six years old at the beginning of the book, We the Animals conveys the raw honesty of a child trying to figure everything out: hunger, love, loneliness, injustice, sex, the weather, desire, poverty, vulnerability, brutality, abandonment, loyalty, brokenness, yearning, fear, and, maybe, hope. Each chapter is a tiny, carefully crafted vignette, a story both elegant and raw, vibrant and incomplete. Rarely has a writer developed the child's-eye view with such intimate vulnerability and emphatic restraint. Take this passage about the regular beatings all three kids suffer at the hands of their father, from the first chapter:

We knew there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting. Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, some place our Paps was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time. He was awakening us; he was leading us somewhere beyond burning and ripping, and you couldn't get there in a hurry.

It's this trust in a father's violence that makes the narrator's voice so open and heartbreaking. When the mother comes home one day with two black eyes, the father "told us the dentist had been punching on her after she went under; he said that's how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out." Torres doesn't explain the lies and therefore forces the reader to engage with the complications of childhood observations so precise they become haunting: "Ma could hold tears on her eyelids longer than anyone; some days she walked around like that for hours, holding them there, not letting them drop."

When the father leaves his wife and children to fend for themselves, and the mother becomes so distraught that she can't go to work, Lena, the mother's supervisor, shows up at the door with groceries, demanding to know what happened. And then, "Lena started kissing Ma all over, little soft kisses, covering Ma's whole face with them, even her nose and eyebrows. Then she put her lips on Ma's lips and held them there, soft and still, and nobody -- not me, not Joel or Manny, nobody -- said a word. There wasn't a word to say." As readers we wonder about the relationship between these two women, this image of care and maybe desire stays with us because the questions that emerge are never answered. That's what makes this book so masterful.

Torres captures the isolation of a mother trying, and failing, to do what's right for her kids; the day after a rape by her husband, she drives the kids away and tells them: "We can go home, but we don't have to. We don't ever have to go home again. We can leave him. We can do that." They don't understand why she's in so much turmoil -- the rape was just another confusing family scene to them; their father is back and he's not beating them as much -- they've missed him. The mother adds: "I need you to tell me what to do." They don't understand this need, a mother asking her kids to save her. They remain silent; she drives them home.

When the kids become angry, it's displaced -- they're angry at a woman who offers them help while their mother is taking a nap in the car and they're playing on the side of the road: "'We should have killed that fucking woman... Taken her keys and driven off,'" says Manny, the oldest. Here we see them growing into a misogyny and an anger that they already don't know how to name. The narrator is confused, unclear of what his brothers mean -- he's growing in a different direction. We know this from the beginning, from the way the book is bathed in a kind of nostalgia that coats even the most violent and desperate acts. We know this when the narrator begins one of the early chapters, about the intimacy of the three brothers together, with the assertion "When we were brothers..." We are forewarned to expect a dramatic falling-out; we just don't know how or when.

As the brothers grow into puberty, their differences emerge: "They called me a faggot, a pest, left me black and blue, but they were gentler with me than they were with each other. And everyone in the neighborhood knew: they'd bleed for me, my brothers, had bled for me." And then there's a virtuosic scene where one of their neighbors, a skinny "headbanger" two years older than Manny, invites them into his basement hideaway to watch a video:

We had seen flesh, but still pictures, women. And, too, we had seen each other's bodies -- all of us, me and Manny and Joel, Ma and Paps -- we had seen one another beaten, animal bleating in pain, hysterical, and now drugged, and now drunk and glazed, and naked, and joyous, heard high laughter, squeals and tears, and we had seen each other proud, empty proud, spite proud, and also trampled, also despised. We boys, we had always seen so much of them, penniless or flush, in and out of love with us, trying, trying; we had seen them fail, but without understanding, we had taken the failing, taken it wide-eyed, shameless, without any sense of shame.

And that's what arises from this gay porn flick of an older guy spanking some kid in lurid admonition: shame. Those beatings: "Wasn't none of it nothing like this," thinks the narrator. But why won't his brothers look at him?

This is the big shift in the book, and at first it's manifested seamlessly, from three brothers together to one brother apart:

They smelled my difference -- my sharp, sad, pansy scent. They believed I would know a world larger than their own. They hated me for my good grades, for my white ways. All at once they were disgusted, and jealous, and deeply protective, and deeply proud.

Look at us, our last night together, when we were brothers still.

This is the beginning of the second-to-last chapter, at twenty pages long an epic in comparison to the others: it's also a chapter of conflict. A few pages earlier, the narrator is asking his father one of those big questions of childhood: "What happens when you die?" And then, without any apparent development in internal thought process, suddenly this kid is yelling at his brothers, taking their behaviors apart, declaring: "You are so fucking ignorant. You embarrass me." Sure, the teenage mind is prone to explosion -- sure, this might be the narrator's first time drunk and so he's grasping at the possibilities of confrontation -- but it's not entirely convincing. Whereas the earlier chapters hold back just enough to make us gasp at the layers of awareness, in this chapter the dialogue feels stilted, the tensions now exposed lean more toward melodrama than revelation.

While the book's ending does not quite live up to the graceful, searing potential of the rest, Torres should be applauded for disrupting the uncomplicated coming-out narrative ever present in gay literature. While We the Animals is a coming-of-age book about a queer kid, it is not a coming-out tale. There are no teary-eyed first kisses or parents jolted by disclosure but eventually all-embracing. The narrator's budding sexual awareness leads to a brutal exposure where "Everything easy between me and my brothers and my mother and my father was lost." It's here that the heart of the tale is most palpable.

We the Animals by Justin Torres
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547576725
144 pages