One-Sitting Books: We the Animals by Justin Torres

22 Sep

Of all the buzzy books that I’ve read this year, Justin Torres’ debut We the Animals is the one that has most lived up to the hype. At only 128 pages, but filled with raw emotion and sparse language, the piece defies definition. Closer to a novella than anything else, the language and tone of the book is equally poetry as it is prose, a collection of moments as much as it is a story with a narrative arc. Torres has created, as it’s been described, “a gut punch to the soul.” Told from inside the world of three brothers in upstate New York, the children of a Puerto Rican father and a white mother, they are as tight and insulated as it gets. Their childhood, as narrated by the youngest of the three, is chaotic and confusing, but filled with love. Their father is abusive and their mother is depressive, but the boys survive together, each one a little wiser with age. The opening excerpt of the novella gives a good picture of the entire tone and sense of wonderment embedded in the sentences:

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.

Our mother came into the kitchen, pulling her robe shut and rubbing her eyes, saying, “Man oh man, what time is it?” We told her it was eight-fifteen, and she said fuck, still keeping her eyes closed, just rubbing them harder, and then she said fuck again, louder, and picked up the teakettle and slammed it down on the stove and screamed, “Why aren’t you in school?”

It was eight-fifteen at night, and besides, it was a Sunday, but no one told Ma that. She worked graveyard shifts at the brewery up the hill from our house, and sometimes she got confused. She would wake randomly, mixed up, mistaking one day for another, one hour for the next, order us to brush our teeth and get into PJs and lie in bed in the middle of the day; or when we came into the kitchen in the morning, half asleep, she’d be pulling a meat loaf out of the oven, saying, “What is wrong with you boys? I been calling and calling for dinner.”

The prose is lyrical and raw, but the thing I found most consuming was the way Torres handles revelation. I felt like I’d been dropped in the middle of this work and I had to use both hands to figure my way through it all. In a lot of books that would be a serious problem, but Torres’ writing has a way of being both elegant and concrete, relatable and still poetic. I have a hard time not saying too many good things about this book. It truly is a gut punch, but a word of warning: you’re not gonna get it for the first 98% of the book. You’ll be tempted to send me an email, and go, “Um Rach, what are you smoking? This is pretty good, but where can all this possibly be headed?” Keep going. The pay-off is coming, and it’s worth it, I promise. The not understanding and the lack of plot will come together. Pinky swear.

The only complaint I have – and it’s one that many others have made as well – is that I wanted more. Not in that, omg I don’t want it to end, wanting more. I mean that the story and the ending could’ve supported another 50-100 pages and still been a thoroughly enjoyable and equally gut-punching book.  Granted, by the end, I was ugly-crying because of how blown away I was, but I still wanted more. I read the last few pages several times, because I was hoping that if I flipped the pages enough, another chapter would magically appear.

Sadly that didn’t happen, but it pretty much guaranteed that I would be in line to read whatever Justin Torres publishes next. We the Animals is searing. And at fewer than 150 pages, it’s a book I’ll come back to again and again.

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3 Responses to “One-Sitting Books: We the Animals by Justin Torres”

  1. Brenna September 22, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    Oooh! I’m intrigued.

    • Rachel September 22, 2011 at 11:57 am #

      It’s sooooo good. And a short read.

  2. Kerry September 25, 2011 at 8:23 pm #

    Ok, this is showing up EVERYWHERE lately, and I’ve heard only good things. Officially on my list!

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