We can all recite famous first lines. "Call me Ismael" (Melville, Moby-Dick), "A screaming comes across the sky." (Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow), "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins," (Nabokov, Lolita), "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," (Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities), or "I am an invisible man," (Ellison, Invisible Man). They have moved from being the beginning of much-fingered books to becoming part of the lexicon we use to comment on our human condition. Here's a new one to add to that language of helplessness: "We wanted more." (Justin Torres, We the Animals, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).
(Before I say another word, a word to those of you for whom book buying is a necessary act of survival, as it is for me: buy this book when it goes on sale September 1, because it is going to sell out and fast.)
In the anaphoric rhythm of his first two and a half pages in the opening chapter, which moves from what three young boys wanted more of (food, noise, distraction, body-heat), to the moment they wanted less (less of everything but the silent morning and a hard-to-love-impossible-not-to mother asleep), "just this, just this," Torres sets us up for a novel that refuses to play by the rules. The vignettes of the boys' lives range from a little over two pages in 'Trash Kites' to the vertiginous twenty-four pages of the penultimate chapter, 'The Night I Am Made.' Though each could be read alone, as self-contained short stories, and though there will be some who call this a novel in stories, resist. This is a book that defies categorization and both laughs at and forgives our need to attach labels to its content, for the content is a shape-shifting many-headed furious god of love.
Toward the end of the book, the narrator, the youngest of the three sons born to a white mother from Brooklyn and a Puerto Rican father, looks at his parents and older brothers and observes: "This was our last time all five in a room together. I could have risen' I believe they would have embraced me. Instead, I behaved like an animal." And this animal-behavior, which runs through the work, is written down with knife-sharp prose. No word is superfluous. No word does less than it should. And perhaps that is why, taken in isolation, any one of the stories that are told about the lives of these three brothers and their parents, could be mistaken for the whole. One could read lines like the following, "Everyone in the neighborhood knew: they'd bleed for me, my brothers, had bled for me. And then this headbanger swooped in with his 'Hiya, fellas' and tores us open, thinned what was thick," or "Why won't you look at me, my brothers, why won't you take my eyes?" and say Torres unwinds the complicated ways that brothers are bound together, lays the thin, naked thread out in a straight line, as far as the eye can see, offers it up for our gaze. One could read passages like the one where the mother of the boys tries to persuade the narrator to stay six forever, to tell people always that he is "six plus one and six plus two" to let them know that he has not become "slick and tough" and forced her to harden her heart and grieve for the moment when parents and children are sundered by their deeds, deeds such as the one that the little boy perpetrates, gripping his mother's swollen face: "She cussed me and Jesus and the tears dropped and I was seven." One could read the tale of how their father took them swimming one blistering summer night, and left his mother and him in the middle of a lake to "learn to swim" and how, in the sweet relief of not drowning he swims to his parents: "I swam toward their bobbing mass and there under the stars, I was wanted. 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," and understand that there is such a thing as second chances and this is all any parent hopes to have. But despite the pitch-perfect rendition of each of these vulnerabilities, the whole is still more than the sum of its parts.
We the Animals will surely find a cozy home among the burgeoning shelves of coming-of-age stories. That would be a travesty. It is no more a coming-of-age story than Jamaica Kinkaid's My Brother is a meditation on siblings or Cormac McCarthy's The Road is simply the story of a journey through a post-apocalyptic landscape. These are books that get to the heart of our relationships to one another, particularly those to whom we are bound by blood. Torres gives us the crux: the way we gather our frailties with tenderness like wildflowers picked in a thorny field through which we walk barefoot, the way we ribbon those bouquets with impossible cruelties and gift them to one another. The way we each consent to take and take.
This is not a book that one wishes would go on forever. It is a book that ends where it should and leaves the reader with the singular wish to go back to the beginning. 31 year old Torres is a young writer who takes his place among the giants with a precisely articulated work whose 144 pages is all we need. It is not, however, all we desire from a writer as wise in his heart as he is gifted in his prose. We want more. Something tells me we're going to get it, and then some.