Monday, September 26, 2011

Fiction: We the Animals by Justin Torres

We The Animals (Houghton Mifflin), the first novel by Justin Torres, is a searing series of lightning-flash vignettes that, together, tell the story of three devoted brothers in what appears to be contemporary New York.

These mixed-race sons of a battered woman and a barely-making-it father find ways to survive that are nothing less than astounding. And how they do it is by using their imaginations. The things they see -- the violence and disappointments and betrayals of life today -- are incorporated into their story, but, it seems, not into their lives, into their reality. It’s almost as if the worst of the worst, the very real drinking and the beatings and the running and the cursing and the bonds made and broken end up the meaningless stuff of bad sitcoms. How else to survive their world, if not to marginalize the reality they share, if not to allow it -- even force it -- to slide off their backs?

In this very spare book -- little more than 100 pages -- each chapter comes across like a perfect little snapshot, or at most a finely made short film, that boils down the boys’ experience to its essence (though Torres is wise enough not to tell us what that essence is).

Sometimes the boys are alone, fantasizing their way through reality. Other times they see the rock-bottom worst of their mother or father. Or both. Sometimes the story is filled with vandalism: breaking glass, the cruel teasing and laughter that breaks children’s hearts and souls. There is always a disturbing sense that something terrible is about to happen, that something will be lost and irretrievable, even when everything seems calm, when their father showers them with kindness instead of cruelty. Life lessons abound: the lessons of the street, the lessons of survival, lessons designed to enable these boys to make it out of their surroundings and into the world beyond their playground.

The foreboding never lets up, and not even when the story takes a jarring turn at the end. Only here, when one of the boys’ privacy is breached, when his own private escape plan is revealed, does the family seem broken beyond repair. Only then is the disappointment among the players deep enough and wide enough that it seems nothing can breach it. Only then does the reality of the real world barge into this hard-edged fairy tale, leaving in its wake a bloody mess of destruction where, mere pages before, there was a troubled, troubling family, but still a family bound by love. ◊

Tony Buchsbaum, a contributing editor of January Magazine and Blue Coupe, lives in central New Jersey with his wife and sons. These days, he is writing his second novel. Again.

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