Take out the dinosaurs, the formation of the universe, and Sean Penn, and The Tree of Life, Terence Malick’s summer anti-blockbuster, is a film about the charged, unspoken bonds of a young family. Through mumblings and mundane interactions, Malick depicts the relationship between the film’s three brothers in a nearly sacred light, and succeeds at making viewers understand that eventually these boys will grow up and tragedy will be befall them. Still, Tree of Life lingers on the fleeting moments they do have together.
Justin Torres’s first novel, We the Animals, is chasing something similar, though Torres’s family landscape is less sun-dappled then Malick’s. Over a series of truncated, carefully carved vignettes, we are introduced to three young brothers—Manny, Joel, and the unnamed narrator, in descending age order—living in upstate New York, the offspring of a Puerto Rican father and a white mother. “Manny was the Father, Joel the Son, and I the Holy Spirit,” the narrator tells us. Taking after their parents, the boys are vibrant and weird, and they play tough: “The Father tied the son to the basketball post and whipped him with switches while the son asked, ‘Why, Paps, why?’”
Both parents in We the Animals are slightly nuts, or at least troublingly unstable. Ma works the graveyard shift at a local brewery, while Paps moves tenuously between jobs. Sometimes Paps digs a giant hole in the backyard for no apparent reason; sometimes Ma wanders through the house half-asleep at odd hours of the day demanding that the kids get dressed and go to school.
The kids, being kids, understand and accept all this as the basic texture of their lives, and accordingly spend their days and nights in a feverish world of stomping, chanting abandon. The line between their games and real lives is frequently in question, and Torres captures this ambiguity from a child’s-eye perspective, depicting their world as wholly changeable and therefore terrifying. The novel’s flashes of strangeness—as when Ma’s factory supervisor, a huge Chinese-American woman, tenderly kisses her on the lips on a visit to the house—are neither explained nor tempered with whimsy. Call it dirty surrealism.
Animals is episodic by design, creating the impression of a narrator circling the same subjects repeatedly from different angles. Violence is always present, either literally or as a possibility, and there is often a strong undercurrent—and at times much more than an undercurrent—of sex. While these are traditional thematic compass points in any coming-of-age story, their presence bears directly on one of the story’s main concerns: the narrator’s eventual recognition of his sexuality, and his family’s violent rejection of it.
The scene that best exemplifies the book’s volatile mingling of sex, play, and violence begins with an after-dinner bath. The entire family is crowded into the bathroom, with Paps scrubbing the boys and Ma at the mirror beautifying. Torres has a gift for crafting compressed, ambiguous scenes that feel earned rather than overly calculated, and here, he spares no detail: “Paps stood to piss and we saw his stout, fleshy dick, the darkness of his skin down there and the strong jet of urine, long and loud and pungent. Ma turned from the mirror; we saw her watching him too. He zipped up and stood behind her, then slid his hands under her bra, and mounds of flesh rolled and squished between his fingers.”
The kids dry off and then go back to the tub to “hide,” expecting to be “found” immediately and entertained by their parents. But instead, Ma and Paps start having sex against the sink, in full view of the boys. “We saw everything,” says the narrator. “The faucet poked into the base of her spine, and it must have hurt her, all of it must have hurt her, because Paps was much bigger and heftier, and he was rough with her, just like he was rough with us.” Eventually Ma pulls away, and the scene devolves into a family group tackle, with the naked kids slapping and kicking their parents, yelling, “You were supposed to come find us.”
This fierce, destructive form of love drives the novel’s narrative energy, and flows through many of the tough, startling moments in the family’s life: the morning Paps breaks down sobbing in front of his kids after losing his security-guard job, the day Ma puts the kids and all their belongings in the car and takes them down to the river before deciding to return home. As the book goes on, the vignettes take on a more malignant darkness, the most disturbing of which takes the boys into a neighbor’s basement, where they are shown a pornographic video that depicts a father abusing his son. “Why won’t you look at me, my brothers, why won’t you take my eyes?” the narrator laments to readers as the chapter concludes.
The book’s only serious stylistic flaw is a tendency towards occasional “lyrical” overwriting and overstatement that makes certain themes more obvious than is necessary. The trope of the boys as animals—stated in the title, and referenced repeatedly throughout—is particularly tiring. They’re animals; we get it. But this is a small annoyance.
It isn’t until the long penultimate section of this short, often excellent novel that the reader comes to understand that these fragments of memory have been reconstructed following a devastating separation between the narrator and his family. The book’s final section, titled “The Night I Am Made,” thrusts the reader into the narrator’s abrupt coming of age as a gay man at the hands of a thick-fingered bus driver and his family’s reaction when they discover his diary of explicit fantasies. Though Torres is usually vague about the boys’ ages at any given point, they grow up suddenly in this chapter, and an unexpected portrait of the artist as a young man emerges. The three brothers, inseparable, and sometimes even indistinguishable in earlier chapters, have divided into a dangerously dead-end pair and an ambitious and sensitive young loner. When the book ends, our narrator has been institutionalized by his uncomprehending parents. Ominous as the final chapter may be, is it too much to hope that the existence of the book we’ve been reading is proof that he’s made it back to freedom and some kind of acceptance?
Andrew Martin has written for the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Republic's The Book, among other publications. He lives in Missoula, Montana.