Dusk seems to be descending forever on the boys at the center of We the Animals, a slender but affecting debut novel by Justin Torres. As porch lights go on, and the other kids shamble home to chores and homework, the unnamed narrator and his brothers prowl the blighted streets of their rural hometown in upstate New York like stray dogs sniffing out their next meal or a new bit of trouble. At home the rising of the moon brings a mother’s absence — she works the night shift at the brewery — and a father’s frustration, which is relieved only by violence inflicted on whoever is at hand.
We the Animals, the kind of sensitive, carefully wrought autobiographical first novel that may soon be extinct from the mainstream publishing world, is mostly written in the first person plural, a tricky gambit that calls attention to itself immediately (as it did in Joshua Ferris’ best-selling novel of cubicled anomie, Then We Came to the End). But the device doesn’t impede our engagement with Torres’ spare, haunting story of a boy scrabbling toward wisdom about the adult world.
“We” are the three sons of a mixed-race couple, Ma and Paps, who met in Brooklyn in their youth before moving upstate, presumably in search of economic opportunity that hasn’t materialized. He is Puerto Rican; she is white. She was just 14, he 16 when she became pregnant; they had to take a bus to Texas so they could marry legally. (One of Torres’ few literary tics is a slight overuse of the semicolon in the early chapters; perhaps it’s catching?)
When the book begins the narrator is nearly 7, and his two brothers, Manny and Joel, are just a couple of years older. The boys travel in a pack, their ethnicity setting them apart from the white working-class children around them, and the disorder of their home life encouraging them to burrow further into their protective intimacy.
On the narrator’s seventh birthday Ma is languishing in bed, her face bloated and bruised days after a severe beating. (Paps had explained that the dentist did it: “He said that’s how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out.”) When she wakes and realizes it is her youngest child’s birthday, she calls him to her and tells him why it’s his duty to remain 6 years old forever: “She whispered it all to me, her need so big, no softness anywhere, only Paps and boys turning into Paps.” To grow up is to grow hard.
The book is composed as a series of brief chapters moving roughly chronologically through a span of a little more than a half-dozen years. Telling incidents are described in simple language that occasionally rises to a keening lyricism: Paps teaching his wife and youngest boy to swim by abandoning them in deep water; Ma receding into catatonic despair when her husband disappears for a few days; a frenzied later attempt at escape when she piles the boys into the truck (the truck she hates for its lack of seatbelts) but drags them home again when they can think of no place to go.
“We had been terrified she might actually take us away from him this time but also thrilled with the wild possibility of change,” Torres writes. “Now, at the sight of our house, when it was safe to feel let down, we did.”
The scenes have the jumbled feel of homemade movies spliced together a little haphazardly, echoing the way memory works: Moments of fear or excitement sting with bright clarity years later, while the long passages in between dissolve into nothingness. From the patchwork emerges a narrative of emotional maturing and sexual awakening that is in many ways familiar (no prizes for guessing the nature of the sexual awakening in question) but is freshened by the ethnicity of the characters and their background, and the blunt economy of Torres’ writing, lit up by sudden flashes of pained insight.