Book review: ‘We the Animals,’ by Justin Torres

It’s rare to come across a young writer with a voice whose uniqueness, power and resonance are evident from the very first page, or even the very first paragraph. It does happen every once in a while, though. And it’s happened again, just now, with the publication of “We the Animals,” a slender, tightly wound debut novel by a remarkable young talent named Justin Torres.

From the first of its 128 pages — all of which can be read in one sitting, as they undoubtedly will be in many instances — readers, even those who don’t go on to love everything about the book, will have little choice but to conclude that they are hearing something new, something strong and something very self-assured.

The unnamed narrator of “We the Animals” is the youngest of three brothers who, while spaced a few years apart, are each beginning to navigate the mine-laden pathway out of childhood and into pre-adolescence. To say that this trio is “tight-knit” is insufficient: They are in almost every sense a collective, eating together, sleeping together, bathing together, and together absorbing their father’s abuse and their mother’s manic-depressive outbursts. What binds them is the natural talent for mayhem that is the birthright of bored and largely unattended young brothers — that and their shared bewilderment at their station as the half-white, half-Latino children of hot-tempered Brooklynites trans­planted to semi-rural Upstate New York.

Often they must fend for themselves. From a future vantage point of relative safety, the narrator recalls, “We ate things from the back of the refrigerator, long-forgotten things, Harry and David orange marmalades, with the rinds floating inside like insects trapped in amber. We ate instant stuffing and white rice with soy sauce or ketchup.” Memories that by all rights should be warm and sepia-toned — learning how to swim, the family’s purchase of a new truck — are shot through with pain, poisoned by abrupt intrusions of violence and contempt. One brother summarizes the filial relationship sadly and perfectly: When asked by his younger sibling if their father’s latest tribulation is somehow the boys’ fault, he replies dryly, “Some’s always ours.”

The chapters in “We the Animals” are only loosely connected in any linear sense, which makes the novel feel more like a collection of short stories. Without the benefit of a plot’s forward momentum, Torres must ask his prose and characterization to do the heavy lifting. He has a special talent for instilling banal events with epic import.

A phone that won’t stop ringing — it’s the boys’ father on the line, desperately trying to get through to their bitter mother, who is blithely ignoring the shrill sound — becomes a potent symbol of a doomed marriage: “The tone of the ringing changed too, from desperate to accusatory to something sad and slow, then it was a heartbeat, then it was eternity — had always rung, would always ring — then it was the piercing bell of an alarm.”

“We the Animals” isn’t perfect. Near the end, Torres self-indulgently allows one of these rough-and-tumble brothers to lapse into a campy oracular mode, spouting religious metaphors and sounding a bit like Robert Mitchum’s deranged minister in “The Night of the Hunter.” Then there’s the matter of the ending. For some it will represent the story’s only possible conclusion, given the narrator’s emerging awareness of the stark differences in sensibility and sensitivity that are pulling him away from his family. But others may find it pat: a too-tidy explanation of his increasingly evident otherness.

Still, none of this can take away from the fact that Justin Torres is a tremendously gifted writer whose highly personal voice should excite us in much the same way that Raymond Carver’s or Jeffrey Eugenides’s voice did when we first heard it. Much buzz has surrounded the publication of “We the Animals”: The book’s arrival has already been heralded by Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Cunningham and Marilynne Robinson, who have lavished praise on the author, barely out of his 20s. And piercing all the publishing-world chatter: the celebratory shot of a starting gun.

Turrentine is a writer and critic based in Brooklyn.

On Sept. 15, Justin Torres will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.

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