If We the Animals by Justin Torres (Houghton-Mifflin, $18) isn't the strongest novel of the year, it's a contender. Pint-sized compared to this season's muscle-bound tomes from King and Murakami, it punches far above its weight. The 125 pages sustain an almost unbearable atmosphere of dread. I'm not sure I've read a story set outside a war zone or the criminal underworld where the threat of violence was as sickeningly pervasive. Something terrible is about to happen to someone in this household, I thought, as I turned each page.
A series of first-person snapshots about a boy's growing up in upstate New York with his two brothers in a mixed-race family (white mother; Puerto Rican father), it's a tale about surviving one's parents. In formal terms, Torres executes a Proust loop-de-loop: the narrator
is relating the youthful experiences that shaped him as the writer of the book we're reading. In the grim impressionism of its style, Torres' nostalgia trip also recalls Henry Roth's Call It Sleep.
Novels and memoirs about the damages of childhood beg to become tear-jerking orgies. What kept me reading was Torres' dry-eyed control over his material. Edited with obsessive care -- the book still bears its whittle marks -- he hasn't allowed that to happen. We can imagine the scars he's been left with without his having to recreate each incident. He treats remembered experience like a fever dream that he is still processing and -- here's the kicker about painful memories -- one that he continues to visit for pleasure and laughs.
Notably brave is his decision to embrace proper society's worst imaginings about the poor. Instead of trying to refute the cliché that poverty can turn kids into a pack of animals, he acknowledges that, yes, that's what it was like growing up in his home -- and for anyone born into these circumstances. To outlast neglect on this scale, you need instinctual cunning, a resilient behind, a pair of fists, and huge amounts of luck. Everyone here is capable of killing or of being killed, especially when one of you turns out to be gay.
The narrator and his brothers aren't so much raised as released. The oldest was born when their mother was 14, their father 16. They're like a litter of feral kittens, hungry for any scrap of food or affection. When "Paps" takes everyone on an after-dinner excursion to a lake in the Catskills on a steamy summer night, he expects they can swim, even if no one has bothered to teach them. He lets his wife and their son ride on his back until the water is far over their heads. Then he swims away and watches them go under until they claw and gasp their way to the surface, and back to him.
"'He's going to learn,' he said, 'you're both going to learn,'" he tells his stunned family on the ride home.
Their mother means well but is frequently too drunk to look after herself, much less them. In this state, after she had "stopped showing up for work, stopped eating, stopped cooking for us," when she would fall asleep at the kitchen table, "with her head in one arm and the other arm dangling down toward the linoleum, where little heaps of cigarette butts and empty packs and ash piled up around her," the boys would fend for themselves.
"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 and ketchup."
All of us come into the world as helpless little things, and Torres uses his sense memory to recapture that fragility. He and his brothers don't really take care of each other -- they're rivals, after all -- but like all newborn mammals in the wild they need each other for warmth in the den.
Bath time is special; the ritual of nude bodies stepping out of hot soapy water and rubbed dry by toweled adult hands is invoked in several chapters. One of the few occasions when the family comes together, it's also anomalous for Paps to touch his children with rough tenderness rather than whipping their butts with a leather strap.
The self-destruction of both parents is seen against the humiliations they suffer at the hands of various employers while they are making vain attempts to be decent providers. The narrator doesn't impugn the behavior of man who fired his father for falling asleep on the job. He simply describes the scene of sitting with his brothers in their truck and watching the cruel belittlement play out.
The boys never attend school. (I'm guessing those scenes were deleted in earlier drafts.) Torres stays focused on tribal home life and the interior life of children. After a certain age, nature seems to program us to triumph despite our stupidity. The book delights in the crazy things siblings believe and the shared bravado achieved when it's them against their folks.
After the trio is out drinking liquor in the woods, one of his brothers throws the empty bottle into the trees. "We didn't hear it come down, we didn't hear a single rustle or thud -- and we reveled in the joy of the silent miracle," the narrator writes. "Manny invented a black hole; Joel suggested the bottle landed perfectly in a raccoon's yawning mouth; I just razzed, That's the stupidest bullshit I ever heard. We stepped into our shadows and the echoes of our laughter, heading nowhere."
Torres is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and his prose in places seems to have undergone group pruning. In the future, he might want to cut down on his intake of Amy Hempel. That's not meant as a put-down but rather to compliment the stark discipline of this novel/confession. He can put more flesh on the bones of his next book. If it's remotely as fine and tough as this one, it will wear whatever Torres next has to say splendidly.