In Justin Torres’ deceptively slim debut novel We the Animals, a heartbreaking stasis reigns over a family in upstate New York. A Puerto Rican man, his white wife, and their three sons are, for lack of a sounder cliche, just trying to get by.
We the Animals, at least in this reviewer’s mind, has a lot working against it: an autobiographical first-person plural novel—that’s not as light-hearted or baldly clever as Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End—that checks in at only 128 pages; a plot-line woven together by a haphazard chronology, moments and memories pasted together in a way that seems, well, sloppy; moments of isn’t-this-a-clever-sentence? mirror-gazing—…what he was doing was this: making us a salad (Just say, “He was making us a salad!”); and a swerve ending that, at first glance, seems like a trick, the sort of gratuitous carpet-pulling that ought to be excised in a second draft.
What We the Animals has going for it, however, outweighs all of this: truly affecting and clever prose, heart, and sobriety of content. Regarding the prose, z.B., the marrow-precision of the opening paragraph of “Never-Never Time”:
We all three sat at the kitchen table in our raincoats, and Joel smashed tomatoes with a small rubber mallet. We had seen it on TV: a man with an untamed mustache and a mallet slaughtering vegetables, and people in clear plastic ponchos soaking up the mess, having the time of their lives. We aimed to smile like that. We felt the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding; the guts dripped down the walls and landed on our cheeks and foreheads and congealed in our hair. When we ran out of tomatoes, we went into the bathroom and pulled out tubes of our mother’s lotions from under the sink. We took off our raincoats and positioned ourselves so that when the mallet slammed down and forced out the white cream, it would get everywhere, the creases of our shut-tight eyes and the folds of our ears.
There is a simple sweetness to these moments. The guiltless, thoughtless smashing of a tomato or a lotion bottle, not out of disrespect or some lack of appreciation for material, but because, as Torres notes, the children “aimed to smile” like the audience who was “having the time of their lives.”
Torres walks a fine line: We the Animals presents a striking view of American poverty, of a mixed-race household in a predominately white area, without getting blotto on those issues. Scenes of poverty—sharing inadequate portions for dinner, trying on secondhand military fatigues, and wandering around the neighborhood with no direction or money—were affecting, but not overdone; sobering but sober, if you will.
Such a shrewd approach allows for Torres’ master storytelling to shine. In the individual, flash fiction-ish chapters and in the broader narrative, Torres gradually builds tension, some-but-not-all of which is released at times: a sexual assault, a neighborhood boy showing the brothers hardcore pornography, Paps leaving, Paps returning, family fights, etc.
Still, nothing seems to change. As the book nears its end, the brothers are still brothers, Paps and Ma are volatile, but still trying to get by, still trying to make their unlikely union work; still trying to hold the family together.
But then, poof. Torres works in a surprising ending that really just throws the whole thing off.
In art, I find swerve endings irritating. (Anyone who braved season one of “The Killing” on AMC knows full well how they can be abused for gratuitous, unclever reasons.) They are a cheap way to further divide the reader from the writer: After 500 pages, I didn’t know this? And then you just spring it on me?
But what makes Torres’ finish work so well is that it’s not all that surprising, upon consideration. I was immediately turned off, but soon realized it resonates with the piece as a whole, illuminating moments that at first seemed to have little meaning whatever.
Issues of class take a backseat. The sweet simplicity of the brothers’ union is no more. And We the Animals is better for it.