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Justin Torres' debut novel is a welterweight champ of a book. It's short but it's also taut, elegant, lean — and it delivers a knockout.
It's called We the Animals and it tells the story of three boys growing up in upstate New York. Their parents started having babies as teenagers in Brooklyn and they work hard to support their family — Ma on a brewery's night shift while Paps drives a truck and does odd jobs. They're poor, and the boys always seem to be scrambling: for more food, more attention and a little more joy.
Both the boys and their parents smack each other brutally — and rely on each other utterly. Their story is told in a series of scenes that burst open like exploding stars, full of violence and light.
Torres, who also grew up in upstate New York, tells NPR's Scott Simon that the book is very loosely based on his own childhood experience.
"I have two brothers; my mother worked in a brewery; my parents were teenagers when they started having kids," he says. "But the incidents are fiction. I wanted to make myth out of family; I wanted to get to an emotional truth that I think fiction can really deliver."
And We the Animals definitely delivers. The brilliantly compressed novel reads as though Torres has been writing it his whole life, or at least his whole writing life.
"I started writing ... late, my mid-20s," he says. "It's been five or six years that I've been working on this book, until I got it as simple and clear and precise and concise as I could."
In Celebration Of Brotherhood And Boyhood
Torres' book serves as a kind of ode to the bond of brotherhood — a bond that is so strong between the brothers of his book that he refers to them as a "three-torsoed beast."
"I think that there's this kind of pack mentality that really close brothers can have," he says. "There's a way in which they can communicate nonverbally and almost behave as just one being, understanding each other's impulses and instincts. And I think that the brothers in this book do that. They run around and they just get each other."
And while the story is told in the voice of the youngest brother, it's clear from the beginning that he's really speaking for all three:
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.
The boys are always wrestling, gouging and smacking each other, a dynamic Torres attributes to boys just being boys.
"I think boys are just inherently exuberant," he says, "but there is a lot of passion among the parents and between the parents that is being absorbed by the brothers; and when you see a lot of violent passion, you enact a lot of violent passion as a child."
The passion between Ma — who is white — and Paps — who is Puerto Rican — is fiery: They love each other and can't keep their hands off each other, but not always in a good way.
"They were teenagers when they started this endeavor of raising three boys and they're maybe not as well-equipped as they could be," Torres says of the boys' parents. "And then they have this overriding passion that makes them wild."
The Reality In Torres' Fiction
We the Animals clocks in at 125 pages, a length that Torres credits more to his writing style than to the story he wanted to tell.
"I kind of write sentence by sentence and I make sure that I have the exact right phrasing and structure and syntax within the sentence before moving to the next one," he says. "It takes forever. And I think that I just have a real attraction to precise, stripped-down, clear language."
Torres says another contributing factor could be that when he started the book, he was busy working odd jobs, so he didn't always have time to just sit and write. "I had to get to the point and get to the heat as quickly as possible," he says.
That heat permeates the novel. In one scene, Torres describes the spankings the boys would get from their father:
And when our Paps came home, we got spankings. Our little round butt cheeks were tore up; red, raw, leather-whipped. We knew there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting. Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, someplace our Paps was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time. He was awakening us; he was leading us somewhere beyond burning and ripping, and you couldn't get there in a hurry.
Torres' portrayal of Paps seems unforgiving at first, and given the semi-autobiographical nature of the book, it would be easy to make assumptions about what Torres' own father must have been like. But the author is quick to point out that the Paps of the book is not the father of his childhood — and he hopes his dad understands that.
"I hope that I have shown a compassionate enough picture here of a father who is not my father. But there are certain similarities," he says. "I hope that that's something he appreciates."