Years ago, I found Justin Torres’s We the Animals in a box of free galleys at an after-school center in Brooklyn. Over time, the book became a lodestar for me, though I’m still not sure what it is. A novella, maybe, whose brief, titled vignettes reveal a family in crisis; or a bildungsroman of a boy discovering his queer identity; or perhaps, like other great, short, chaptered novels, it doubles as a poetry collection.
The unnamed lead, a young child, is obscured at the start, lumped with his two older brothers in an encompassing first-person plural. Torres is savvy about disguising exposition. Here three brief chapters give us the cast (the brothers, their mentally ill mother, their charismatic yet dangerous father), the time period (subtly, by way of Gallagher, a 1980’s star, smashing watermelons on the television), and the race and social status of the family, as the father dances with his boys in the kitchen (“Mutts, he said, “you ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican. Watch how a purebred dances, watch how we dance in the ghetto”). We’re so swept along that we don’t notice that we’re eating narrative broccoli, all the background to contextualize what’s to come.
I admire Torres’s craft in separating prelude from plot, which kicks in the instant the exposition concludes. This is a novel whose titular “We” will gradually transform into an “I.” The lead is first separated out on his seventh birthday. His mother has been hit by his father. “When you boys turned seven, you left me,” she says. “Shut yourselves off from me. That’s what big boys do.”
“I won’t,” the protagonist replies to himself, a premonition lacking even a dialogue tag, reminiscent of Hamlet’s first aside, also a denial of a parental assertion. “Not so, my lord; I am too much i’ the sun,” says Hamlet next. Torres’s lead looks at the sun through his mother’s window and considers blinding himself. As with Hamlet, the child is a passive actor. His non-comprehension allows action to accumulate beneath the linguistic surface.
The narrative description of this book, whose luridness doesn’t match the emotive experience of We the Animals, would go as such: After the initial abuse, the father will leave, the father will come back, the mother will be sexually assaulted by the father and try to leave with the children, they will come back, the father will beat his oldest son, the parents will reach a détente. All this anguish occurs at a remove. The mother’s newly crooked-toothed smile, the older brother’s increasing anxiety—breadcrumbs. I don’t know of many novels whose plot is so buried, and I love the technique, the way the melodrama doesn’t feel manipulative.
All the while, the boy’s sexuality comes into focus in remarkably oblique fashion. I’ve taught this book to seven college creative writing classes; each time, students have emailed to tell me how much they identified with the lead’s slow progression of self-awareness. As with Hamlet, the boy is fixated on his father. He speaks in a sexy voice when he plays telephone, imitating his mother begging his father to come home; a neighborhood teen shows the brothers a pornographic video of a father sexually punishing his son. This should feel too on-the-nose, but Torres’s carefully wrought poetic register allows for this sort of narrative symmetry—we want his world to feel worked. The boy’s brothers gradually start accusing him of difference, growing into a hypermasculinity that will remove the narrator from their “we”: “They called me a faggot, a pest, left me black and blue, but they were gentler with me than they ever were with each other.” Finally, an electric line. The boy is left alone in a Niagara Falls museum, and a man in corduroys asks if he’s alright. “I would’ve liked to drag my fingernail across his thigh,” our lead thinks.
That location is no coincidence. The novel is bound by water, an Opheliac undercurrent that contains what feels like madness: queerness. The lead chases immersion without understanding his desire. I can’t say that I noticed how much water is in the book the first time I read it, or the fifth—a student of mine pointed it out, and I did that thing where a teacher feigns calm while frantically scribbling notes in the margins.
Early in the novel, the lead’s father tries to make him learn to swim by dunking him without warning in a lake. The boy is underwater for a long time, “disoriented and writhing,” before he surfaces again, thrillingly alive. His father often says, “easier to sink then swim.” In a disturbing scene, the boys sit in a dry tub watching their parents have sex, the bodies erotically detailed. Later, our protagonist lies in a rainy ditch, trying to “trick my body into thinking.” When he snaps out of it, his family stands above, other. The boy’s scholastic achievements separate him from his brothers, allowing him to go to Niagara with his father, who holds him above the onslaught of the Falls, the language gorgeous and seductive: “The water was tripping over itself, splashing and hypnotizing, and I tried to fix my mind on a chunk of it, like each little ripple was a life… I wanted my body in all that swiftness; I wanted to feel the slip and pull of the currents and be dashed and pumped on the rocks below, and I wanted him to let me go and die.”
After the man with the corduroys leaves, the lead interacts with the museum’s educational film. It’s my favorite scene of the book, a revelation of something that’s been long withheld, and especially moving in the context of Torres’s work with water. The writing is propulsive, the long stretching sentences joined by conjunctions, the rhythm of short syllables steadily crashing like the falls:
I stood where he had been, and the waterfall projected across my face and arms. I moved closer to the wall so that the waterfall swallowed me up and I danced. I pretended I was a mer-boy prince and it was my job to try to catch all the men in barrels and save them from their deaths, but when I cupped my hands and reached up, they always slipped through…Soon I stopped trying to save them at all because I was consumed in my death dance; spinning on my toes and looked down at my body, the water slipping and rushing over me, I slithered my arms and wiggled my hips against the current.
The son turns—his father is watching. “I was thinking how pretty you were,” he will later say. “Now isn’t that an odd thing for a father to think about his son? But that’s what it was. I was standing there, watching you dance and twirl and move like that, and I was thinking to myself, Goddamn I got me a pretty one.”
As with the exposition in the beginning, the crafty Torres doesn’t need to linger once his narrative work is done. In one of the more staggering final-act decisions that I know of, we abruptly jump a decade into the future. There is no first-person plural at all now, just a sibling “they” and a lead “I.” The boy loses his virginity to a trucker, comes home, and is caught. He is shipped away to a sanatorium. He finds his new “we” with the queer community. But first, a reverent, holy moment, unlikely as a ghost. The father asks, “How long since you got a bath?” There, alone in the bathroom, the father trims the dead skin from his mute, forlorn son’s feet. A moment of purely fractured love.
We the Animals has been made into a movie, which will be released on August 17. I’m at about a 55/45 worried/anticipatory mix, but unlike most cinematic adaptations, there’s no risk of the film supplanting the images from the book. They’ve been playing in my mind for seven years.