We the Animals

9780547576725_custom-146c8df757e1701e713e13712c5a9c0662f29f52-s6-c30 We the Animals
Justin Torres
© 2011

I love the opening line of Anna Karenina:Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Unhappy families all have their own special brands of dirty laundry and dark secrets.

But it’s rare that you get to see what makes an unhappy family so unhappy (unless, of course, you have the misfortune of coming from one).  People often keep their unhappiness behind closed doors.

We the Animals opens those doors.  Wide.

A little family background:

  • A fourteen-year-old white girl gets pregnant by her sixteen-year-old Puerto Rican boyfriend.
  • They drive to Texas to get married (they are from New York, and she’s too young to get married there).
  • Over the course of three years, they pop out three kids.
  • They move to upstate New York in search of a better life.
  • She works the graveyard shift at a brewery; when he works, he works odd jobs.  He’s better at drinking than working.
  • The three kids, all boys, are wild and thick as thieves.

At the start of the book, the unnamed narrator (who speaks in first person plural, referring to himself and his two brothers) is seven.  His older brothers, Joel and Manny, are nine and ten, respectively.  Paps calls the boys “mutts” (“You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican.”).

Ma and Paps are reckless, abusive, desperate, young, and immature.  They are still growing up, despite having the responsibility of three mouths to feed and minds to shape.  Their parenting choices are questionable at times and atrocious at others–they smother the three boys with love and need in one moment and treat them like absolute shit the next.

The book (at a scant 128 pages, it’s more of a novella, really) is told in vignettes that span about a decade.  There’s the time Ma comes home on the narrator’s birthday after having been beaten until she’s purple.  There’s the time Paps shows the boys how to dance the mambo like a “purebred” in the kitchen.  There’s the time Ma and the boys act like Gallagher in the kitchen, smashing tomatoes and tubes of lotion and bottles of ketchup until they’re covered in slime and goo and look like newborn babies.  There’s the time Paps tries to teach Ma and the narrator how to swim by taking them to the middle of a lake and leaving them there to fend for themselves.

Each chapter is like the telling of a distinct, vivid memory (some separated by days, others separated by years).  They are snapshots that range from the joyful to the excruciating.

Rating: 3.5/5 👬

As soon as I finished reading the book, I went online to find out if it is autobiographical.  It seemed like Torres was drawing from personal and painful experience.  It is frighteningly and heartbreakingly real.

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of truth in his novel: “The hard facts are autobiographical. I have two brothers, my mother worked in a brewery, my parents were teenagers when they started having kids, and I’m the youngest of the three.”  But, he says, the incidents are fictionalized–“Nothing that happened in the book happened—or happened like that.” (As an aside, these quotations are from this Mother Jones interview with Torres.  It is worth reading.)

We the Animals takes you on an emotional roller-coaster ride.  That’s a played-out description, I realize, but here it is apt.  There were times when I laughed out loud and times when I felt sick to my stomach.  There’s a lot of love in this book, but there’s also betrayal and abuse and devastation.

Reading this book feels vaguely voyeuristic.  You’re reading someone’s family secrets, and it feels a little wrong . . . but you want to do it anyway.

Who should read it: fans of short fiction (this is more like a collection of related short stories than a traditional novel); people who like emotionally-wrought memoirs.

Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (a New York Times Best Book of the Year for 2011, long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2011, and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012)
  • The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (winner of the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction, winner of 2012 Guardian First Book Award, and National Book Award finalist)
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