Reviewed: We The Animals by Justin Torres
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)
For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by.)
To me was all in all.
In We The Animals, a semi-autobiographical novella, Justin Torres explores his childhood through several short chapters, which are arranged chronologically and bound by a loose narrative thread. Torres’s barely fictionalized narrator and his two older brothers are a pack of wild animals, “lost boys,” who tumble and whoop and tear through youth.
For Torres, the purest experience of the world is a physical one. His characters communicate more clearly with gestures than they do with words. The young narrator apologizes to his mother by silently wrapping himself up in the bedroom curtains, and the three brothers express their love by making human pyramids, poking each other with forks, and crawling into bed together. Alone in a room, our narrator (a version of Torres himself) performs an underwater dance in a projector’s beam of light. These “glad animal movements” are liberating, a natural response to the anger he feels when he is left alone for too long by his father.
The boys experience constant hunger; they often don’t get enough to eat. But they hunger just as desperately for physical affection and for adventure. Torres’s young narrator craves his parents’ attention so much that he conjures it in his mind. In a dream, he swims toward his beckoning Mami and Paps: “They had never been so happy to see me, they had never looked at me with such intensity and hope, they had never before spoken my name so softly.” When the three brothers sneak out to spend a night outdoors, and when they climb out to sit on a freeway overpass, we understand their need to be amazed and to thrill their senses. Torres’s wild account of a hardscrabble childhood reminds us that we are most alive when we are most hungry.
Our favorite line:
“What we gotta do is, we gotta figure out a way to reverse gravity, so that we all fall upward, through the clouds and sky, all the way to heaven,” and as he said the words, the picture formed in my mind: my brothers and me, flailing our arms, rising, the world telescoping away, falling up past the stars, through space and blackness, floating upward, until we were safe as seed wrapped up in the fist of God.”
Justin Torres will be part of a panel discussion at the Arkansas Literary Festival at 2:30pm on Saturday, April 14 at the Arkansas Studies Institute. Greg Brownderville will also be attending, along with moderator Graham Gordy.