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New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 128 pages. $18.00.
This breakneck speed is the pace for most of Justin Torres’ brilliant first novel, We The Animals, which follows the narrator from the race of childhood into the measured pace of becoming an adult. The book begins when the unnamed six-year-old narrator and his brothers are so close they identify as part of a collective: “We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.” The boys are not exempt from hardship in their youth—their mother suffers a breakdown, causing the boys to go days without food; their father nearly kills the narrator in a reckless attempt at swimming lessons—but these moments, which terrify and sadden the adult reader, are quickly glossed over in favor of longer passages about running, discovering porn, and exploring the neighborhood. That’s because the story—as well as the way it’s told—perfectly mimic the mind of a young boy.
Take the chapter “Lina,” for example. The boy’s mother has stopped going to work and has taken to sleeping “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 around her.” Instead of focusing on this emotional scene, the narrative shifts to Lina, the mother’s supervisor, who comes by the house: “She was born in China; she was tall and thick, with high cheekbones that stuck out like handlebars below her eyes. ‘You’re huge,’ we said.”
Lina is by far the most interesting part of this scene to a six-year-old boy, so the narrative focus shifts to her. And this is exactly what makes this book so effective: the format is part of the story. The close, choppy scenes place us completely in the mind of the young narrator. Every detail reminds us that this isn’t a book about adults. It’s a book about boys.
And it’s a good book about boys. We The Animals is on the same level as Dandelion Wine and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, but it also goes a step beyond these classics to show us what happens when the young narrator grows into an adult. This transition is gritty and realistic (who ever heard of growing up gracefully?), which can be jarring for a reader who has become accustomed to the fast, brisk, dare-I-say fleeting pace of the previous chapters. In a novel full of unconventional choices, aging the narrator is perhaps the greatest risk Torres takes.
But it works. Because when Torres allows the narrator to grow into a sexual, intellectual young man, the writing shifts to reflect this. The chapters become longer. The language becomes more descriptive, pensive. The form and story are so intertwined that the combination of the two explains what it is to be a boy—something we don’t often understand until we move into the slower, measured pace of becoming an adult.