We the Animals: A novel

We the Animals: A novel

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by Justin Torres

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In this groundbreaking debut, Justin Torres plunges us into the chaotic heart of one family, the intense bonds of three brothers, and the mythic effects of this fierce love on the people we must become.

"We the Animals is a dark jewel of a book. It’s heartbreaking. It’s beautiful. It resembles no other book I’ve…  See more details below


In this groundbreaking debut, Justin Torres plunges us into the chaotic heart of one family, the intense bonds of three brothers, and the mythic effects of this fierce love on the people we must become.

"We the Animals is a dark jewel of a book. It’s heartbreaking. It’s beautiful. It resembles no other book I’ve read.”—Michael Cunningham

"A miracle in concentrated pages, you are going to read it again and again." —Dorothy Allison

"Rumbles with lyric dynamite . . . Torres is a savage new talent." —Benjamin Percy, Esquire

"A fiery ode to boyhood . . . A welterweight champ of a book." —NPR, Weekend Edition

"A tremendously gifted writer whose highly personal voice should excite us in much the same way that Raymond Carver’s or Jeffrey Eugenides’s voice did when we first heard it." —Washington Post

"A novel so honest, poetic, and tough that it makes you reexamine what it means to love and to hurt." —O, The Oprah Magazine

"The communal howl of three young brothers sustains this sprint of a novel . . . A kind of incantation." —The New Yorker

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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File size:
577 KB
Age Range:
14 Years

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We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.
   When it was cold, we fought over blankets until the cloth tore down the middle. When it was really cold, when our breath came out in frosty clouds, Manny crawled into bed with Joel and me.
   “Body heat,” he said.
   “Body heat,” we agreed.
   We wanted more flesh, more blood, more warmth.
   When we fought, we fought with boots and garage tools, snapping pliers—we grabbed at whatever was nearest and we hurled it through the air; we wanted more broken dishes, more shattered glass. We wanted more crashes.
   And when our Paps came home, we got spankings. Our little round butt cheeks were tore up: red, raw, leather-whipped. We knew there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting. Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, someplace our Paps was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time. He was awakening us; he was leading us somewhere beyond burning and ripping, and you couldn’t get there in a hurry.
   And when our father was gone, we wanted to be fathers. We hunted animals. We drudged through the muck of the crick, chasing down bullfrogs and water snakes. We plucked the baby robins from their nest. We liked to feel the beat of tiny hearts, the struggle of tiny wings. We brought their tiny animal faces close to ours.
   “Who’s your daddy?” we said, then we laughed and tossed them into a shoebox.
   Always more, always hungrily scratching for more. But there were times, quiet moments, when our mother was sleeping, when she hadn’t slept in two days, and any noise, any stair creak, any shut door, any stifled laugh, any voice at all, might wake her, those still, crystal mornings, when we wanted to protect her, this confused goose of a woman, this stumbler, this gusher, with her backaches and headaches and her tired, tired ways, this uprooted Brooklyn creature, this tough talker, always with tears when she told us she loved us, her mixed-up love, her needy love, her warmth, those mornings when sunlight found the cracks in our blinds and laid itself down in crisp strips on our carpet, those quiet mornings when we’d fix ourselves oatmeal and sprawl onto our stomachs with crayons and paper, with glass marbles that we were careful not to rattle, when our mother was sleeping, when the air did not smell like sweat or breath or mold, when the air was still and light, those mornings when silence was our secret game and our gift and our sole accomplishment—we wanted less: less weight, less work, less noise, less father, less muscles and skin and hair. We wanted nothing, just this, just this.


We all three sat at the kitchen table in our raincoats, and Joel smashed tomatoes with a small rubber mallet. We had seen it on TV: a man with an untamed mustache and a mallet slaughtering vegetables, and people in clear plastic ponchos soaking up the mess, having the time of their lives. We aimed to smile like that. We felt the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding; the guts dripped down the walls and landed on our cheeks and foreheads and congealed in our hair. When we ran out of tomatoes, we went into the bathroom and pulled out tubes of our mother’s lotions from under the sink. We took off our raincoats and positioned ourselves so that when the mallet slammed down and forced out the white cream, it would get everywhere, the creases of our shut-tight eyes and the folds of our ears.
   Our mother came into the kitchen, pulling her robe shut and rubbing her eyes, saying, “Man oh man, what time is it?” We told her it was eight-fifteen, and she said fuck, still keeping her eyes closed, just rubbing them harder, and then she said fuck again, louder, and picked up the teakettle and slammed it down on the stove and screamed, “Why aren’t you in school?”
   It was eight-fifteen at night, and besides, it was a Sunday, but no one told Ma that. She worked graveyard shifts at the brewery up the hill from our house, and sometimes she got confused. She would wake randomly, mixed up, mistaking one day for another, one hour for the next, order us to brush our teeth and get into PJs and lie in bed in the middle of the day; or when we came into the kitchen in the morning, half asleep, she’d be pulling a meat loaf out of the oven, saying, “What is wrong with you boys? I been calling and calling for dinner.”
   We had learned not to correct her or try to pull her out of the confusion; it only made things worse. Once, before we’d known better, Joel refused to go to the neighbors and ask for a stick of butter. It was nearly midnight and she was baking a cake for Manny.
   “Ma, you’re crazy,” Joel said. “Everyone’s sleeping, and it’s not even his birthday.”
   She studied the clock for a good while, shook her head quickly back and forth, and then focused on Joel; she bored deep in his eyes as if she was looking past his eyeballs, into the lower part of his brain. Her mascara was all smudged and her hair was stiff and thick, curling black around her face and matted down in the back. She looked like a raccoon caught digging in the trash: surprised, dangerous.
   “I hate my life,” she said.
   That made Joel cry, and Manny punched him hard on the back of the head.
   “Nice one, asswipe,” he hissed. “It was going to be my fucking birthday.”
   After that, we went along with whatever she came up with; we lived in dreamtime. Some nights Ma piled us into the car and drove out to the grocery store, the laundromat, the bank. We stood behind her, giggling, when she pulled at the locked doors, or when she shook the heavy security grating and cursed.
   She gasped now, finally noticing the tomato and lotion streaking down our faces. She opened her eyes wide and then squinted. She called us to her side and gently ran a finger across each of our cheeks, cutting through the grease and sludge. She gasped again.
   “That’s what you looked like when you slid out of me,” she whispered. “Just like that.”
   We all groaned, but she kept on talking about it, about how slimy we were coming out, about how Manny was born with a full head of hair and it shocked her. The first thing she did with each one of us was to count our fingers and toes. “I wanted to make sure they hadn’t left any in there,” she said and sent us into a fit of pretend barfing noises.
   “Do it to me.”
   “What?” we asked.
   “Make me born.”
   “We’re out of tomatoes,” Manny said.
   “Use ketchup.”
   We gave her my raincoat because it was the cleanest, and we warned her no matter what not to open her eyes until we said it was OK. She got down on her knees and rested her chin on the table. Joel raised the mallet above his head, and Manny squared the neck of the ketchup bottle between her eyes.
   “On the count of three,” we said, and we each took a number—my number was last. We all took the deepest, longest breath we could, sucking the air through our teeth. Everyone had his face all clenched up, his hands squeezed into fists. We sucked in a little more air, and our chests swelled. The room felt like a balloon must, when you’re blowing and blowing and blowing, right before it pops.
   And the mallet swung through the air. Our mother yelped and slid to the floor and stayed there, her eyes wide open and ketchup everywhere, looking like she had been shot in the back of the head.
   “It’s a mom!” we screamed. “Congratulations!” We ran to the cupboards and pulled out the biggest pots and heaviest ladles and clanged them as loud as we could, dancing around our mother’s body, shouting, “Happy Birthday! . . . Happy New Year! . . . It’s zero o’clock! . . . It’s never-never time! . . . It’s the time of your life!”

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Meet the Author

JUSTIN TORRES is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. He was the recipient of a Rolón Fellowship in Literature from United States Artists and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Granta, Tin House, and Glimmer Train. Among many other things, he has worked as a farmhand, a dog walker, a creative writing teacher, and a bookseller; he is now a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.

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We the Animals 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 67 reviews.
beachlover20855 More than 1 year ago
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the slim volume of We the Animals by Justin Torres. How was it going to live up to the high praise; how forceful and convincing can a story be that ends when other similar books are just getting started on their storytelling journey? But, as the saying goes - good things come in small packages and I was enthralled by this amazing debut novel. Torres wastes no time getting the reader engaged and committed to his tale. We the Animals tells the story through a series of vignettes of three brothers growing up in upstate New York. The story is narrated by the youngest brother as an adult looking back on his childhood. It is through his eyes we experience the brothers' adventures, the turbulent marriage of his parents - a white mother and Puerto-Rican father, and the eventual coming-of-age of the narrator as an "I" instead of a "We." Torres provides an intimate portrait of a family in crisis set against the restraints imposed by themselves and society. While reading I felt like I was looking through a family album with the narrator and at each picture he stopped and told me the story behind the snapshot. Each story portrays the pain and love in their lives, as they struggled to make sense of who they were in the world, how to they take what is dished out to them and what does survival look like. The most painful stories were those where a situation started out as a joyous event, but an ugly twist soon ends the happiness. The narrator patiently, in an aching yet lovely voice, takes you from how he was a full "we" with his brothers - all for one and one for all, to his budding realization that he just might not be the same as his brothers and informs us, "They smell my difference - my sharp, pansy scent." This keeps building until a single event at the end is in many ways the culmination of the trauma, hurt and love the family feels for each other, yet they each know their world will never be the same again. We the Animals is a forceful debut that will invade your thoughts long after you have read the last word, as the author's storytelling is spellbinding. The portrayal of the household that is intense, chaotic, and loud is set by the controlled tone of narrative, and this provides grace to the dark lyrical prose. I recommend this book to readers who enjoy the structure of language to tell a story. This book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Reviewed by Beverly APOOO Literary Book Review
Hickgal More than 1 year ago
The story of three brothers as told from one brother's point of view. But what truly grabbed me was the writing. Justin Torres writes so beautifully. Not a single word is wasted. I would read paragraphs over again just because I loved the language so much. The story is so emotional and the ending will take your breath away.
Kee58 More than 1 year ago
Unusual and stunning. The usual descriptors don't apply. Read it. It's a quick, compelling evening of reading after which you'll look up amazed at what you've experienced.
TiBookChatter More than 1 year ago
I had mixed feelings with this one. I was impressed by its fierceness. It's brutal and honest and the images that Torres creates are unforgettable. He definitely has a way with words and it's obvious to me, that he poured a lot of himself into these boys when creating these characters. But, the format of the novel is not like traditional novels. It's really a collection of vignettes and one of the things that I noticed right off, is that as soon as I found myself fully absorbed, Torres moves on to the next scene which left me sitting there, wanting more. This is a debut novel for Torres and it was beautifully written and parts of it literally made my heart ache, but I feel as if he experimented a bit with what to include and what not to include and perhaps it was too lean. At just 144 pages, I think he had room to not only scratch the surface, but really give us a feel for his narrator as the story is told from the youngest brother's point of view. This is one of those instances where the writing won me over. Although the structure of it didn't work for me, I was taken with the prose and I had no trouble appreciating the amount of work that went into constructing each, and every sentence. Broken apart, each sentence could stand on its own, which made it almost like reading a poem, if that makes any sense at all. In the end, I would absolutely read another novel by Torres and I'm glad that I had a chance to experience his writing.
SheilaCE More than 1 year ago
We the Animals is a coming-of-age story like nothing I've ever read before. It is sometimes shocking, sometimes funny, heartwarming and maybe even a little scary because of how it affects you on such a personal level. Three boys, raising hell in Brooklyn, following in the footsteps of passionate parents, doing everything they can think of, making chaos, loving fiercely. It almost felt like I was a peeping-Tom into the window of someone's very private family life. Sometimes I wondered what motivated them, then that was answered in the next breath as they held tight to each other. The book is not very long. You can easily read it in a day. Don't think you can skim it though because it is too emotionally electrifying to be able to just skim over pages. Every page is important. Every word. Justin Torres seems charming and full of life and perhaps a little innocent. This book is for anyone who wants to be challenged to think about family ties and how our early years affect us.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an intense little book. After I read the last page and closed the cover, it felt like thunder had just gone off overhead.
CoCoVanAron More than 1 year ago
I was consummed by the pages and heartbroken after each event. I found myself cheering the "boys" on only to be let down by one of the parents. I wanted it to end. I did not want it to end. This book made me feel like a good parent by the time I finished.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Most books are a good story and the author drops the ball when writing the ending. This is not the case here. There is a weird twist I won't give away, but the book takes an unexpected turn that I still have not wrapped my brain around. I still haven't decided if I like the ending yet. Maybe that is a good thing because books rarely make you think anymore....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was anticipating this book as I had heard a good review and an interview with the author. I found it to be trite and I read it to the last page waiting for something to draw me in, either with emotion or with craft but I found nothing to recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't know what to think of this book. The one thing I am certain, is that it is similar to The Bluest Eye. It was an okay read with lots of events that kept the plot interesting and urged me to keep reading. The author does an amazing job in telling the story of this family
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Sbrant1 More than 1 year ago
Beautifully writing, like a poem. I savored the language and was swept up by the way it opened like a flower, revealing itself bit by bit. More, Mr. Torres, more!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The heading says it all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a terrible ending. And I don't mean in terms of a gripping ending. It was nonsensical; flat; ugly. The descriptions were not even human like. Just ugly words that told no story in the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would not have purchased had I known it was a short story! The description should have made that clear. The writing was choppy and the ending was horrible.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I hate it. if i could do 0/5 stars i would do that
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a beautifully written first novel. I loved every single word. Mr. Torres is a an excellent writer and this is going to be a hard act to follow.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Torres crafts beautiful prose that makes him an unforgettable author, and all on his first novella. Truly worth reading over and over again. Deserves 10/5 stars
livelifelow More than 1 year ago
The lyric simplicity of his diction, the intensity of his voice, and his ability to infuse an emotional response into every word astounds me.