“We the Animals” by Justin Torres, Families are not All Alike

“We the Animals” by Kevin Torres   (2011) – 125 pages

 Sadly, none of us gets to choose which family we are born into.  And when we arrive here, we are babies and don’t know anything.  It will take us years and years to figure out exactly what kind of family we’ve been put into and even more years to figure out how our family is different from other families.

 The three boys in ‘We the Animals’ have a mother and a father.  The father was 16 when he married the mother who was only 14.  They had to drive down to Texas from New York to get married legally.  Soon they have the three little boys.  The father sometimes cooks for the boys, jokes with them, dances with them, spanks them hard while the mother works.  The mother works all night, so she has to sleep during the day, and the little boys run into the bedroom and try to wake her up.   

 One day the father carries the mother into the house.  Her cheeks are purple, and she has been beaten up.  The father tells the boys that the dentist had to punch on her to loosen up her teeth before pulling them out.  Little boys will believe anything.  For three days the boys are forbidden to go into the bedroom, and when they do, the mother lifts her head off the bed and says ‘My beautiful baby boys’.

 After a couple of weeks they go on family outings again, swimming and so on.  But then the father leaves.  Someone tells one of the boys they saw him leave with a girlfriend.  The mother stops going to work, stops cooking, stops eating.

 The three boys have to fend for themselves a lot of the time.  One time they got into their neighbor’s, the Old Man’s, garden.  They taste the food, trample the plants, and lay waste to the entire garden.  Old Man watches them from his porch and calls them ‘Animals’ and comes into the garden to try to fix some of the broken plants.    A lesser writer would have made Old Man mean, angry, perhaps given him a gun to carry.  Here Old Man brings the boys up on the porch and talks to them. 

 The father of the three boys comes back after a few months, and things go decently for a while.  The family needs a new car, and the father takes the three boys along with him, and he buys a new big truck.  When they get home from the dealer, the mother asks, “How many seat belts does it have?”  The truck has only three seatbelts, and there are five of them.  “… she kept screaming at him, right up in his face, ‘Big-dick truck! Big-dick truck!”  Her neck and cheeks were flushed red, and she was lost in tears, in rage…”

 The three boys grow up.  Only later do they discover that they are not all the same, that there are huge differences between them. 

Someone had to write this brilliant novel, a must-read book.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I do love “brilliant” novels and have not been reading much recent fiction lately. Along with The Sense of an Ending, The Marriage Plot, and, for reasons I cannot understand, The Sisters Brothers, this will go on my very short list of 2011 fiction TBR-soon.

    Thanks for highlighting what looks like a great book. (Added to your always reliable opinion, I count at least three Pulitzer Prize-winning authors as fans. Wow.)

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  2. Hi Kerry,
    One word that I was going to use to describe ‘We the Animals’ but forgot to was ‘visceral’. The three boys are operating at a pre-rational, instinctive level.

    I’ve gone with US fiction more this year and I’ve not been disapppointed. Books like ‘Rules of Civility’, ‘Swamplandia’, and ‘Caleb’s Crossing’ as well as this one have been fine. I do very much want to read ‘The Sense of an Ending’ before I start my best of 2011 list.

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