We the Animals, By Justin Torres


Peter Carty
Tuesday 13 March 2012 01:00

What it is to be a boy! Adventures each and every day, with endless rough and tumble in the cause of rebellion. Our mixed-race narrator is growing up in New York state with an abusive father, unpredictable mother and two aggressive elder brothers. His parents started their family much too young – Ma was 14, Paps 16 – and they are not coping well. Yet, while Paps's violence is despicable, his musculature and vitality are mesmerising for his youngest son.

If fraternal relations are frequently savage, the brothers are often as selflessly united as three miniature Musketeers. Many escapades end in beatings from Paps. But behind the pain, the boys sense they are entering a realm that, while brutal, is somewhere they must travel. Burgeoning manhood steadily builds barriers against the sweet encroachments of their mother's love.

Justin Torres's lyrical treatment of transgression can be shocking. If occasionally it appears that he is toying with the surreal, that's because the story contains enough dysfunctionality to distort our sense of reality. Paps tries to teach his wife and youngest son to swim, for example, by towing them out into the middle of a lake and letting them go.

Torres's extended use of the first-person plural sets a defiant marker and at times his prose has the intensity of poetry. Here's the narrator describing his mother in a state of disarray: "Her mascara was all smudged and her hair was stiff and thick, curling black around her face and matted down in the back. She looked like a raccoon caught digging in the trash: surprised, dangerous."

This is a novel but every chapter could stand alone as a short story. Together they form a haphazard montage of events, each ending in understated epiphany. There are surprising developments. Rather than disintegrating, this family is like dough: it can take repeated pummellings and stretchings.

The autobiographical nature of Torres's narrative is reminiscent of David Vann, another US newcomer, and prompts the same question: whether Torres will widen his purview to material less directly related to his life story. In the meantime, his debut holds out the promise of further virtuoso writing.

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