Monday, November 28, 2011

We the Animals

"We the Animals" is Justin Torres' novel based on his life of growing up poor in upstate New York, the youngest of three brothers and the offspring of a white mother and Puerto Rican father. The chapters are like snapshots of memories, all told from the perspective of the young narrator. The brothers are a pack, hunting together, playing together, sleeping and eating together.  The novel is told in first person plural. Gradually, the main character ages and drifts apart from the pack and the voice of the novel breaks off into something hysterical as it tries to reinvent itself as an individual voice.

The child narrator is so convincing. I loved how the reader is fed all the child-like observations without an adult filter. I was unsure of the time or setting in the beginning and I, being very gullible, believed the narrator’s immature perceptions of his world, even if the world he presented was confusing and didn’t add up to much sense. When the mother was badly beaten up and the father told his sons the dentist punched her in the face to loosen up her teeth, I just thought, “Okay, that sounds like the kind of health insurance I can afford.” But instead of realizing the father’s lie and placing responsibility where it belonged, I naively thought the family just lived in some strange world where dentists punched their patients in the face.

In a beautiful chapter titled “Seven,” the mother tells her youngest son she wants him to stay seven years old forever. I shared this opinion, but not for the same reason. Perhaps because the novel is so short I felt like the narrator grew up too fast. The way it ends with the main character being hospitalized and disgraced for being gay seems like the beginning of another book.

Justin Torres is a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford and a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I was awed when I learned he has two of the most prestigious honors available to writers. He definitely has a passionate and original voice. "We the Animals" is something magical and I look forward to Torres' next book.

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