We The Animals by Justin Torres
Reviewed by Leyla Sanai
Justin Torres’s autobiographical debut consists of a series of scenes from his childhood. Growing up the youngest of three wild brothers,Torres was aware that his family was different from those of other neighbourhood tearaways, because although his parents hailed fromBrooklyn, his father was Puerto Rican while his mother was Italian-Irish.In their chaotic household, uncontrolled emotion featured high and consistency low: one minute they’d be tickling each other, the next,Paps would be beating someone. Or, Paps would get distracted from giving the boys a bath and start having sex with Ma in the same room.Ma, who worked nightshifts in a brewery, tried to leave Paps on atleast one occasion, yet when he transiently disappeared with anotherwoman, Ma stopped eating and functioning. A psychologist could have written a dissertation on the mixed messages given to the kids.The boys wandered the streets vandalising, taking drugs and engaging inviolence, partly, one feels, to escape their parents’ tempestuous exchanges, and partly because the only discipline they tasted was unrelated to anti-social behaviour.
Like David Vann, whose raw debut consisted of a number of inter-linked,semi-autobiographical stories from his traumatic childhood, Torres rejects conventional narrative, instead picking several key memories and recounting them with the laconic distance that time buys. These fragments of a dysfunctional childhood are shocking. The boys’ delinquency is at times so gratuitously cruel that this reader almost lost sympathy for them – the torturing of baby robins is particularly unforgiveable (although it displays the paradox so often shown by the carelessly violent since the boys also fed a stray cat and her kittens.)Well-meaning adults who tried to help them often gave up in frustration– the man whose vegetable garden they raided, for example, who not only tolerated their upheaval of his plots but also made them a salad( to show how humans eat vegetables), was prevented from serving the saladby a violent fight between two of the brothers. Likewise the woman who found the brothers wandering along a dangerous four-lane major road and offered help, who was thanked with the hurling of a paving stone and insults.
The tragic wisdom of W.H. Auden’s line ‘Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return’ is chillingly apparent in this family: the mercurial Paps was himself beaten by his father; the boys damage trees in addition to their vicarious wounding of animals and humans. And the cycle of abuse trundles on – when the boys purposefully break a neighbour’s window, the neighbour’s adult son cajoles themback to his basement to watch child porn while his father shows no surprise at three minors being brought into his basement late at night.
But there is also love in this memoir. Paps bathing his disturbed teenage son is a scene that suffuses tenderness and care. And the bond between the brothers is fiercely strong – ‘everyone in theneighbourhood knew: they’d bleed for me, my brothers, had bled for me.’
We The Animals is compelling, but frustratingly short – even with generous spacing, it stretches only to 125 pages. I craved more information – the picture presented was like a dot-to-dot with too fewdots. When a story is told exclusively through vignettes,a lot of them are needed to convey the picture, set the atmosphere. The question of Torres coming out as gay (mentioned in the blurb, so not a spoiler) is only raised in the last few pages. Contrast this with Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart, where the protagonist’s physical abuse as a child and his subsequent dangerous sexual behaviour are devastatingly but beautifully recounted, so that the reader feels emotionally involved and wholly immersed. Torres’s book lacks the consistent poetry and hypnotism of the latter, but there are many moments which are intensely moving.Torres can express, in a few succinct words, the concept of children forced into maturity before their time: when Ma packs their clothes declaring they’re leaving Paps, she drives to a park and sleeps whilethe boys run amok. When she wakens, she asks them if they should leave Paps or stay. One can almost feel the tearing of childhood innocence athaving to make such decision. No wonder Torres’s vulnerability seeps through every page – even as a delinquent, he sucks his thumb.
But for me, the most haunting passage follows Torres’s eldest brotherManny’s vicious beating by Paps after the three boys attempted to runaway: ‘After a while, Manny started up again, talking to himself,plotting, saying ‘What we gotta do is, we gotta figure out a way toreverse gravity, so that we all fall upward, through the clouds andsky, all the way to heaven’, and as he said the words, the pictureformed in my mind: my brothers and me, flailing our arms, rising, theworld telescoping away, falling up past the stars, through space andblackness, floating upward, until we were safe as seed wrapped up inthe fist of God.’ Tragically riveting. 1/2 OUT OF