Thursday Review: We The Animals

I think that sometimes I type out these quotes from novels that I enjoy in the hopes that maybe the writing - not simply the writing in the particular section but possibly everything the author has ever written or will write - in the hopes that maybe the writing, the words, the style will become part of my own.

This is nowhere more true than with Justin Torres and We the Animals, the story of three brothers, Manny, Joel and our nameless narrator, growing up in upstate New York. Paps and Ma - he's Puerto Rican, she's white (Paps calls his sons "mutts") - love, fight, work, leave each other, come back and struggle to make a home for themselves and their sons. All the while, the brothers fight, call each other names, smash tomatoes all over themselves, make kites out of trashbags, cause mischief, play ball, share body heat, and take care of each other.

Over time and the course of the book, we learn that the youngest (our narrator) is gay, and it is this found fact that will change his life and his family forever.

Originally I was wary picking up this book. I knew I would, but my first experience of Justin Torres was a piece he did for NPR's "You Must Read This" program. His book that we must read? Jim Grimsley's Dream Boy.

Dream Boy is about two boys who meet and fall in love. If it were left at that, I'd have been just as happy. But one of the boys, the main character, is beaten and left for dead in a very vivid and emotionally intense section of the book. And I thought, well, Justin, if you are telling me to read that, what exactly am I going to find in your book? (FYI, the boy in Dream Boy recovers and he and his love skip town together.)

So with some trepidation on my part, I began We the Animals. The first and last paragraphs of the first chapter are below.

We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more. (1)

Always more, always hungrily scratching for more. But there were times, quiet moments, when our mother was sleeping, when she hadn’t slept in two days, and any noise, any stair creak, any shut door, any stifled laugh, any voice at all, might wake her, those still, crystal mornings, when we wanted to protect her, 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, those mornings when sunlight found the cracks in our blinds and laid itself down in crisp strips on our carpet, those quiet mornings when we’d fix ourselves oatmeal and sprawl onto our stomachs with crayons and paper, with glass marbles that we were careful not to rattle, when our mother was sleeping, when the air did not smell like sweat or breath or mold, when the air was still and light, those mornings when silence was our secret game and our gift and our sole accomplishment – we wanted less: less weight, less work, less noise, less father, less muscles and skin and hair. We wanted nothing, just this, just this. (2-3)

I found that my trepidation did not leave me. Paps and Ma's relationship seemed something akin to Stanley and Stella's in A Streetcar Named Desire with some pornorific beefy papi in place of Marlon Brando. The passion in the household was so hot that I felt that at any moment something, anything, or nothing could happen sending Paps or Ma or one of the boys in a rage.

Don't get me wrong: Paps and Ma are equally "abusive" to each other. It seems more as though it is their lives they're trying to escape rather than each other.

And so, the trepidation I felt never abated but it seemed like the trepidation one feels at the beginning of a relationship or, rather, in the middle when you and your love have already said the three words you long to hear and the sex is incredible. Things change. Boys grow up. Brothers grow apart. And sometimes being gay is a deeper chasm than one might expect.

And, finally, though know one is beaten and left for dead, We the Animals is as emotionally intense (and somewhat traumatic) as Dream Boy. Be prepared for this slim novel to cut you deeply.

Image via Hundreds of Ways

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charmngbilly said…
it's in The Pile, tho' i expect it'll take me awhile to get to it. i've started Sex and Death: Introduction to Philosophy of Biology. also, started Julian Barnes new one. good review. and you're not the only one who felt put-off with dream boy
I am typically drawn to things that cause me pain so I think I might enjoy this.
Loki's Log said…

I liked this books as well, but I have to admit I was disappointed in how the book finished. The last chapter was so jarringly different than the rest of the narrative it seemed like it was written at a different time and patched together haphazardly. I wondered if the editor should have worked more closely with him to smooth out that transition, particularly in such a shirt work. I also felt that I had read a more well developed version by Junot Diaz. I liked it but think it felt short of the hype on the back cover testimonials. Havin said that, I'll look forward to reading his next effort.
Writer said…
billy, the new Julian Barnes is on my list as well. I warn you: you may be a little put off by We Are the Animals as well.
Writer said…
Elliot, thank you for following and I typically like things that are painful as well...well, except for dental work. ;)
Writer said…
Loki, I agree with you. Justin is definitely an author to look out for. But I too had a hard time with the transition. Am I right in assuming that, basically, the narrator had a break with reality??

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