We the Animals

We the Animals

by Justin Torres

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Overview

SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE

An exquisite, blistering debut novel

Three brothers tear their way through childhood— smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn—he’s Puerto Rican, she’s white—and their love is a serious, dangerous thing that makes and unmakes a family many times.

Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another. From the intense familial unity felt by a child to the profound alienation he endures as he begins to see the world, this beautiful novel reinvents the coming-of-age story in a way that is sly and punch-in-the-stomach powerful.

Written in magical language with unforgettable images, this is a stunning exploration of the viscerally charged landscape of growing up, how deeply we are formed by our earliest bonds, and how we are ultimately propelled at escape velocity toward our futures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547576725
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 08/30/2011
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.62(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

JUSTIN TORRES's first novel We the Animals, a national bestseller, has been translated into fifteen languages and is now a feature film.  He has published short fiction in The New Yorker, Harper's, Granta, Tin House, The Washington Post, Glimmer Train, Flaunt,and other publications, as well as non-fiction pieces in publications like The Guardian and The Advocate.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and a Cullman Center Fellow at The New York Public Library.  The National Book Foundation named him one of 2012's 5 Under 35.  He has been the recipient of a grant from the National Endownment for the Arts, a Rolón Fellowship in Literature from United States Artists, and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Recently, he served as Picador Guest Professor for Literature at the University of Leipzig. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is Assistant Professor of English at UCLA.

Read an Excerpt

WE WANTED MORE

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.

NEVER-NEVER TIME

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.
   “Three!”
   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!”

Table of Contents

We Wanted More 1
Never-Never Time 4
Heritage 8
Seven 12
The Lake 18
Us Proper 24
Lina 30
Other Locusts 33
Talk to Me 39
You Better Come 44
Night Watch 52
Big-Dick Truck 61
Ducks 66
Trench 75
Trash Kites 82
Wasn’t No One to Stop This 86
Niagara 98
The Night I Am Made 103
Zookeeping 125
Acknowledgments 127

What People are Saying About This

Dorothy Allison

"Justin Torres has accomplished an extraordinary thing—put on the page what has seemed impossible to articulate, a degree of passion and terror that many of us know but have hesitated to make this plain. A gift. Some books quicken your pulse. Some slow it. Some burn you inside and send you tearing off to find the author to see who made this thing that can so burn you and quicken you and slow you all at the same time. A miracle in concentrated pages, you are going to read it again and again, and know exactly what I mean." --(Dorothy Allison)

Tayari Jones

"We the Animals marks the debut of an astonishing new voice in American Literature. In an intense coming-of-age story that brings to mind the early work of Jeffrey Eugenides and Sandra Cisneros, Torres' concentrated prose goes down hot like strong liquor. His beautifully flawed characters worked their way into my heart on the very first page and have been there ever since."--(Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow)

Michael Cunningham

"We the Animals is a dark jewel of a book. It's heartbreaking. It's beautiful. It resembles no other book I've read. We should all be grateful for Justin Torres, a brilliant, ferocious new voice." --(Michael Cunningham )

Paul Harding

"We the Animals snatches the reader by the scruff of the heart, tight as teeth, and shakes back and forth—between the human and the animal, the housed and the feral, love and violence, mercy and wrath—and leaves him in the wilderness, ravished by its beauty. It is an indelible and essential work of art." --(Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Tinkers)

From the Publisher

"We the Animals is a dark jewel of a book. It’s heartbreaking. It’s beautiful. It resembles no other book I’ve read. We should all be grateful for Justin Torres, a brilliant, ferocious new voice."
—Michael Cunningham

"Some books quicken your pulse. Some slow it. Some burn you inside and send you tearing off to find the author to see who made this thing that can so burn you and quicken you and slow you all at the same time. A miracle in concentrated pages, you are going to read it again and again, and know exactly what I mean."
—Dorothy Allison

"In language brilliant, poised and pure, We the Animals tells about family love as it is felt when it is frustrated or betrayed or made to stand in the place of too many other needed things, about how precious it becomes in these extremes, about the terrible sense of loss when it fails under duress, and the joy and dread of realizing that there really is no end to it."
—Marilynne Robinson

"We the Animals snatches the reader by the scruff of the heart, tight as teeth, and shakes back and forth—between the human and the animal, the housed and the feral, love and violence, mercy and wrath—and leaves him in the wilderness, ravished by its beauty. It is an indelible and essential work of art."
—Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Tinkers

"We the Animals marks the debut of an astonishing new voice in American Literature. In an intense coming-of-age story that brings to mind the early work of Jeffrey Eugenides and Sandra Cisneros, Torres's concentrated prose goes down hot like strong liquor. His beautifully flawed characters worked their way into my heart on the very first page and have been there ever since."
—Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow

"We the Animals is a gorgeous, deeply humane book. Every page sings, and every scene startles. I think we'll all be reading Justin Torres for years to come."
—Daniel Alarcon, author of Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight

"A strobe light of a story...I wanted more of Torres's haunting word-torn world..."
New York Times Book Review

"Justin Torres' debut novel is a welterweight champ of a book. It's short but it's also taut, elegant, lean — and it delivers a knockout."
—NPR's Weekend Edition

"A slender but affecting debut novel by Justin Torres...[a] sensitive, carefully wrought autobiographical first novel...The scenes have the jumbled feel of homemade movies spliced together a little haphazardly, echoing the way memory works: moments of fear or excitement sting with bright clarity years later, while the long passages in between dissolve into nothingness. From the patchwork emerges a narrative of emotional maturing and sexual awakening that is in many ways familiar...but is freshened by the ethnicity of the characters and their background, and the blunt economy of Mr. Torres’s writing, lit up by sudden flashes of pained insight."
New York Times

"The communal howl of three young brothers sustains this sprint of a novel, which clocks in at a hundred and twenty-five pages. The boys, who imagine themselves the Musketeers, the Stooges, and the Holy Trinity all at once, are the wisecracking, lamenting chorus who bear witness to their parents’ wild-ride marriage. Ma got pregnant at fourteen—she tells her oldest son she could feel him growing inside her, ‘heart ticking like a bomb'—and now sleeps for days at a time and weeps whenever she tells her children she loves them; Paps, occasionally AWOL, surfaces to deliver meticulous, leisurely spankings. The collage of vignettes is elevated by Torres's twitchy prose, in which the pummel of hard consonants and slant rhymes becomes a kind of incantation: ‘They hunched and they skulked. They jittered. They scratched...They'll flunk. They'll roll one car after another into a ditch.'"
New Yorker

"The best book you'll read this fall...We the Animals, a slim novel—just 144 pages—about three brothers, half white, half Puerto Rican, scrambling their way through a dysfunctional childhood, is the kind of book that makes a career....Torres’s sentences are gymnastic, leaping and twirling, but never fancy for the sake of fancy, always justified by the ferocity and heartbreak and hunger and slap-happy euphoria of these three boys. It’s a coming-of-age novel set in upstate New York that rumbles with lyric dynamite. It’s a knock to the head that will leave your mouth agape. Torres is a savage new talent."
Esquire

"First-time novelist Justin Torres unleashes We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a gorgeous, howling coming-of-age novel that will devour your heart."
Vanity Fair

"A novel so honest, poetic, and tough that it makes you reexamine what it means to love and to hurt. Written in the voice of the youngest of three boys, this partly autobiographical tale evokes the cacophony of a messy childhood—flying trash-bag kites, ransacking vegetable gardens, and smashing tomatoes until pulp runs down the kitchen walls. But despite the din the brothers create, the novel belongs to their mother, who alternates between gruff and matter-of-fact—'loving big boys is different from loving little boys—you’ve got to meet tough with tough.' In stark prose, Torres shows us how one family grapples with a dangerous and chaotic love for each other, as well as what it means to become a man."
O, the Oprah Magazine

"The imagistic power of Justin Torres’ debut, We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), exists in inverse proportion to its slim 128 pages. Just try shaking off this novel about three upstate New York brothers whose knockabout childhoods with their Puerto Rican "Paps" and white "Ma" are the narrative equivalent of feral kitties being swung overhead in a burlap bag."
Elle magazine

"A kind of heart-stopping surge of emotion and language in this musical tornado of a novel."
—Pam Houston in More magazine

"Justin Torres’ debut novel, We the Animals, does a lot more than just get read. In a mere 124 pages, it shouts, beatboxes and flirts; it lulls only to shock awake; it haunts and creeps and surprises. If Torres’ book were an object, it would be a BB gun spray-painted jungle green. If it were a sound, it would be something like Kanye West circa "808s and Heartbreaks" reinterpreting Maurice Ravel’s "Bolero." Torres, a 31-year-old graduate from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a current Wallace Stegner Fellow, writes in a voice that combines urgency, brutality and huggable cuteness that creates a pungent new voice both endearingly frightening and difficult to categorize."
—Forbes.com

"[We the Animals] packs an outsized wallop; it's the skinny kid who surprises you with his intense, frenzied strength and sheer nerve. You pick up the book expecting it to occupy a couple hours of your time and find that its images and tactile prose linger with you days after...what stays with me are the terrible beauty and life force in Torres' primal tale."
Newsday

"That such a young author writes so well in his debut novel seems miraculous. Few books can match the trifecta pulled off in We the Animals: simplicity married to artistry and candor. For this reason, along with others noted here, this book could not be more highly recommended."
New York Journal of Books

"Short sentences. Short chapters. Short book. But wow! What a powerful piece of fiction. Justin Torres’ We the Animals is a tough little novel about three brothers growing up as the neglected, beloved sons of a Puerto Rican father and a white mother who works the graveyard shift in a brewery and sometimes doesn't know what day it is. It's daring and funny and a little scary, and it nails the competitive bond among siblings better than any book in recent memory."
The Oregonian

"Telling the story of three mixedrace brothers growing up in New York state, Justin Torres’ debut novel, We the Animals, is a quick, raw, punchy read....memorable and vivid"
Dallas Morning News

"Here's a first novel that reads like one, not because it's amateurish or unsure of itself—it's neither—but because it's urgent. Urgency in fiction is easily faked—kill off the protagonist's parents in the first sentence, or do away with dependent clauses, or use the second person—but Justin Torres’ We the Animals is actually urgent. Urgent not to tell us anything or to make a particular point, but, like a living thing, to be what it mysteriously needs to be, to fulfill the promises it makes to itself."
San Francisco Chronicle

"Filled with rich detail, tableau-like scenes, and true-to-life little boy adventures, We the Animals is a must-read novel. Torres’ evocative language grips the reader, each scene bringing the boys to life, reminding us of our own childhoods and our struggles to grow into strong men and women."
San Francisco Book Review

"It takes only a single paragraph of Justin Torres’ We the Animals to announce a powerful new voice in literary fiction....This short, sharp shock of a debut novel, based on the author's experiences growing up poor in upstate New York, is like a viscous liquor that both burns and braces."
Arizona Republic

"It’s rare to come across a young writer with a voice whose uniqueness, power and resonance are evident from the very first page, or even the very first paragraph. It does happen every once in a while, though. And it’s happened again, just now, with the publication of We the Animals, a slender, tightly wound debut novel by a remarkable young talent named Justin Torres."
Washington Post

"Justin Torres’s slim volume We the Animals comprises a series of seminal moments from a young boy’s life, which are revealed in brilliant, searing flashes; its relatively few pages contain the arc of an entire childhood...As a debut, We the Animals proves that Torres is not only a novelist of deep empathy, but one with the ability to compress this feeling into prose until only the truest and most essential kernels remain."
Time Out New York

"A slim book can hold volumes. We the Animals, the first novel from Justin Torres, is such a book. Not an ounce of fat on its slight frame, but the story is sinewy. Stong....We the Animals crafts beauty out of despair. From lives so fragmented they threaten to break off into oblivion at any moment, Torres builds a story that is burnished, complete. That takes talent, diligence and more than a little grace."
Houston Chronicle

"We the Animals is a book so meant to break your heart that it should lose its power just on the grounds of being obvious. That it pierces—with an arrow dipped in ache—signals that Justin Torres is a writer to embrace from the start. This is his first novel."
Newark Star Ledger

"Torres has spilled onto the scene, big beating heart in hand. The book is short because it must've been absolutely exhausting to write. But that doesn't matter because you'll read it three times. But most of all, We the Animals will enrapture the literary world, as it should, because of its lyricism. It feels like reading James Agee by lightning strike."
Arkansas Times

"We the Animals conveys the raw honesty of a child trying to figure everything out: hunger, love, loneliness, injustice, sex, the weather, desire, poverty, vulnerability, brutality, abandonment, loyalty, brokenness, yearning, fear, and, maybe, hope. Each chapter is a tiny, carefully crafted vignette, a story both elegant and raw, vibrant and incomplete. Rarely has a writer developed the child's-eye view with such intimate vulnerability and emphatic restraint."
—Bookslut.com

"Justin Torres’ first novel, We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 144 pages), carries all the balm and hazard of strong waves at high tide. Told through the eyes of the youngest of three brothers, the novel evokes the experience of youth and the struggles of a poor family from Brooklyn living in upstate New York. Through his enveloping and fast-paced prose, Torres bestows his story with a rare generosity and honesty, portraying the family’s jagged love—with all its cruelty, beauty, tenderness, and loyalty—and chronicling the events leading to the family’s calamitous fragmentation."
ZYZZYVA: The Last Word: West Coast Writers and Artists

"Three brothers and a dueling husband and wife are bound by poverty and love in this debut novel from Stegner Fellow Torres...The short tales that make up this novel are intriguing and beautifully written"
Publishers Weekly

"An exquisitely crafted debut novel—subtle, shimmering and emotionally devastating...the narrative voice is a marvel of control—one that reflects the perceptions and limitations of a 7-year-old in language that suggests someone older is channeling his younger perspective. In short chapters that stand alone yet ultimately achieve momentum, the narrator comes to terms with his brothers, his family and his sexuality, separating the "I" from the "we" and suffering the consequences. Ultimately, the novel has a redemptive resonance—for the narrator, for the rest of the fictional family and for the reader as well. Upon finishing, readers might be tempted to start again, not wanting to let it go."
—STARRED Kirkus

"Fiercely gorgeous...In a style that reaches the level of poetry, We the Animals is a hymn for what is lost; for what we leave behind and what never leaves us. Belying brevity, Torres has crafted a beast of a book, stretching its paws and flexing its tail, a creature that is simultaneously elegant and ferocious."
Publishers Lunch

"Justin Torres's first-rate prose will leave you gut-socked and breathless, with a lump in your throat...the writing is exquisite, making the painful trip so worthwhile...A touching, frightening story of three boys who grow up amid neglect, poverty, violence and occasional moments of pure, radiant love."
Shelf Awareness Pro

 

Marilynne Robinson

"In language brilliant, poised and pure, We the Animals tells about family love as it is felt when it is frustrated or betrayed or made to stand in the place of too many other needed things, about how precious it becomes in these extremes, about the terrible sense of loss when it fails under duress, and the joy and dread of realizing that there really is no end to it." --(Marilynne Robinson)

Daniel Alarcon

"We the Animals is a gorgeous, deeply humane book. Every page sings, and every scene startles. I think we'll all be reading Justin Torres for years to come." --( Daniel Alarcon, author of Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight)

Interviews

A CONVERSATION WITH JUSTIN TORRES, AUTHOR OF WE THE ANIMALS
When did you start writing, and how did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I wrote as a kid, stories and poems, and on and off as a teenager. I read all the time. But I didn't think "a writer" was an option available to me. Like, how did writers get paid? That didn't make sense to me. I never met "a writer" in my life. I met janitors, cops, people who worked in factories and in stores, waitresses, people who took care of other folks children, housecleaners, carpenters, teachers. I knew who paid them. I understood that kind of work.
I started writing seriously in my mid-twenties. And I got pretty lucky, pretty quick. I took a writing class with a friend, the professor was supportive, and he introduced me to another teacher, who took me under his wing and encouraged me to think seriously about my future. In five years, he asked me, where do you see yourself? And I honestly had no idea. I was hanging out, working jobs I hated and quitting, I had dropped out of a bunch of colleges, and I wasn't thinking about taking myself seriously. But talking to that teacher, and talking to other people in the class, I found out there were residencies and colonies and fellowships and all manner of things you could apply for, and I just started applying and sending stories out to be published, and like I said, I got lucky.
What kind of a student were you in high school? What books did you like to read?
I was a shy, perfect student until about the age of fourteen. School was an escape from home; good grades came easily to me. I loved to read. I loved to learn. I even loved math. But around fourteen, I developed a very bad attitude. I started using drugs, dyed my hair three different colors (it was the 90's), skipped school when I felt like it. I had been in honors classes and the honors kids were my friends, but I would go to their houses and just get so angry at how perfect and large and cozy their homes were, about the money they had; I would literally open their fridges and just feel rage at how delicious and expensive the food they ate was. So I gravitated to kids who were not in the honors classes with me, kids who had known grief and hard-knocks in their home lives, or poverty, a mom or dad in jail, whatever. We were punks, and we helped each other escape, we supported each other as best we could.
I slid away from school for a few years, but in the eleventh grade I had this amazing English teacher, and she challenged and encouraged me. I wanted to make her proud. She told me I could get a scholarship to college; that I belonged in college. Belonged. That is a powerful word, because I had no idea where I belonged, or who I belonged with. I started taking all my subjects seriously, and pretty quickly pulled my grades up from the gutter. I was lucky that this same teacher taught honors twelfth grade English and she fought to have me put back in all honors classes. When, in my senior year, my parents put me in the mental hospital, she came and visited me. She brought me philosophy books: Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus, and explained to me about existentialism (though it was years before I fully understood what the books or that philosophy was about). Novels: On The Road, by Jack Kerouac; Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neal Hurston; The Counterfeiters, by Andre Gide; Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg; Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, and quite a few books by Toni Morrison, who will always be one my favorites. Not all of these books I understood then either, or rather, many of these books I feel differently about now. But I was in a desperate place and I clung to them. Once she brought some of my friends and held a class in the conference room of the mental hospital. I can never describe how much that meant to me. Literature saves lives—teachers of literature save lives, and she saved mine.
How much of the story is true?
The stories, all the details, are made up. I make a lot of things up, though people always seem to believe that everything is true. I think this is because the family these characters are based on is my own family, a very real family. So I understand these characters so well, and I can put them in any situation and describe how they would react in a convincing manner. Its true that my mother would get pretty frustrated and confused, she worked a lot of nights, she worked hard, and its true that my father beat us, its true that we danced a lot in our house, and that we loved each other in complicated, messy ways, but the details, the story, is my creation.
My parents were in the ninth grade when my mother got pregnant with my oldest brother. They dropped out of high school, moved to a small town and had two more boys before my mother was old enough to legally drink. They raised us on their own, without any financial support from their own parents. So yeah, we were pretty poor. But my parents worked hard, got their GEDs, and even started taking college classes through the mail (this was before the internet existed). I remember them with all these papers spread out on the kitchen table, books and pencils, and they'd be taking tests and writing essays, and we'd be playing at their feet. My father had a lot of trouble finding work in those days, for a number of reasons, among them a bad temper and dark skin in a town full of white people. My mother worked as a cashier at the supermarket, and then later she got a job at a brewery. Both of them often worked through the night. And we were just as wild as boys can be.
But by the time we were in high school both of my parents had attained degrees and solid jobs. My father was a cop and my mother worked as a guidance counselor. They made a lot of mistakes—a lot—but they taught us about perseverance.
What does your family think about your writing?
My brothers think some things I made up actually happened. They're all, I remember that, and I'm like, No, you don't, it didn't happen. My mother loves everything I do. She cries, a lot, when she reads my work. She calls me up crying, which can be hard, but my mother's a crier, so I don't worry too much. I have never shown my father anything. We don't talk or see each other very often, and the last time I saw him he hadn't read anything, but that didn't stop him from being pissed. We got into a huge fight. The book came out in September, and I still haven't heard a peep. So we'll see?.we'll see?
Who have you discovered lately?
I recently returned to home after a few weeks on book tour and found three books by Denton Welch waiting for me in my mailbox. The books were sent by this very handsome couple that I met when I gave a reading in DC—a happy surprise. I'd never heard of Welch, but In Youth is Pleasure is simply and deeply good; sensitive and slight and profound. I'm eager to read the rest of his work. Welch has been championed by folks like Auden and Burroughs, and for good reason. Raised in England, Welch died in 1948, at the too-young age of thirty-three. He left behind three novels. I plan to read them all, and his journals. I really can't recommend him highly enough.

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We the Animals 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 88 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.
SamSattler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I first became aware of We the Animals, Justin Torres¿s debut novel, late last October when I attended a session presented at the 2011 Texas Book Festival by Torres and two other first-time novelists, Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) and Amy Waldman (The Submission). I was impressed enough with each of them to walk away from the session wanting to read all three of the books presented that day. We the Animals completes that reading cycle for me. Different as they are, all three novels turned out to be interesting, worthwhile reads that I would probably have otherwise missed, so I am grateful for having had the opportunity to hear their authors speak about them that day.If I remember correctly, Torres stated in Austin that We the Animals began as a group of individual short pieces, and that it was only later that he realized that he had the makings of a novel on his hands. By stringing the stories together in chronological order, he has produced that novel (although its brevity makes it as much akin to a novella as to a novel, I think). We the Animals is the story of three brothers who grow up in upstate New York alongside their white mother and Puerto Rican father, two people who have plenty of growing up of their own to do. The boys¿ Brooklyn-born mother became pregnant for the first time at age 14 and her baby¿s father was not much older. As the novel unfolds, it can be difficult to remember that Ma and Paps are still in their twenties as they try to cope with poverty and the challenge of raising three young boys together. The couple¿s passionate relationship creates a family dynamic that will severely test the strength and character of their children. Fortunately for the boys, they bond in a way that forges a unit stronger than the sum of its individual parts. The stories told in We the Animals vary from laugh-out-loud funny ones to tear-jerking sad ones, but taken as a whole, they paint the picture of three boys who somehow thrive despite the hands-off approach by which they are mostly being raised. They have each other. They adore their mother and, despite often fearing him, they love their father. One feels good about their chances - and then comes the book¿s jarring last chapter, a piece of the story that changes everything before it.Rated at: 4.0
frisbeesage on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
We the Animals is a fierce, gut-wrenching ride through growing up. The three boys alternately cry, battle, and love their way through a childhood dominated by the loud, abusive, and yet close and loving relationship of their parents. Wildly exuberant, the three boys fight their way into adulthood with many missteps and triumphs along the way. In the end the narrator, the youngest boy, will have to step out of the shadow of his family and find his own path.Wow! A gorgeous, intense, coming of age book that you won't be able to ignore. Not a comfortable read, this is more of a train wreck you can't look away from. So searingly honest and bare, yet funny in parts and even heartwarming, We the Animals, captures the experience of growing up and finding your way perfectly.The audio version is narrated by Frankie J. Alvarez. He portrays the animal energy and brutality of the boys well. You can hear in his voice the cockiness of youth in one minute and the utter lack of confidence in the next. Its a great match that makes the book even better.
msf59 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
¿Now a boy of all wild beasts the most difficult to manage.¿-PlatoSmall books can pack quite a punch and this debut novel is a prime example. It follows three young brothers, of mixed heritage, as they blast through childhood, in upstate New York, with a volatile father and a hard-working, mostly absent mother. At turns, funny, sad, violent and touching, the edgy prose blossoms like a dark flower.¿We made kites: trash bags on strings. We ran, slipped, the knees of our dungarees all grass stained, we got up, ran, choked ourselves half to death with laughter, but we found speed, and our trash kites soared.¿
porch_reader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In this deceptively thin volume, Torres uses each word precisely to help us see through the eyes of three brothers being raised in a poor and unstable family. They are comrades who stick together and face the manic love and frequent abuse from their Puerto Rican father and white mother. It is as if Torres knows that a detailed narrative would be too much for most readers and that we will only peek inside these lives if we are certain that we will be allowed to turn quickly away. But, because of the power of the words, we keep coming back for more. This book was unsettling, but powerfully written. Torres is a gifted writer. You need only read the first chapter, a mere three pages, to see what I mean. "We Wanted More" begins like this:"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 agnry 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." The pace builds, until with a gasp, the chapter ends like this:"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."
Cailin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I finished this book a few days ago and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. The writing is very good, and some of the scenes have stayed with me but I think I may have to read it again. We The Animals is a short book, I think it's shocking in it's sadness and violence.
KristiB41 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I didn't realize this was such a short book but I read it quickly and I did enjoy it. I would have liked to find out more about the main character and what became of him and his family.
molugum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"We the Animals" is a coming of age story about the youngest of 3 brothers of Puerto Rican ancestry, born into a volatile working class family transplanted from Brooklyn to Upstate NY. With it's spare and gorgeous prose this book is reminiscent of Piri Thomas's "Down these Mean Streets" and Junot Diaz's "Drown" but also uniquely it's own, I loved this book.
suetu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
¿Quiet was as close to happiness as we would ever get¿When I was younger, I had the very naive idea that most families were pretty much like mine. I¿m older now, and I no longer thing that. Told from the perspective of the youngest son of three sons, We the Animals is the story of a profoundly dysfunctional family. It¿s not without joy and not without love, but these people are very messed up. The interracial parents exhibit the kind of passion that is frequently explosive. The sons are rowdy, affectionate, neglected, and perhaps caught in the same cycle of poverty as their parents.Debut novelist Justin Torres writes beautifully and with affection for his characters. The tale is told episodically, almost as a collection of linked stories. At the beginning, the unnamed narrator is just turning seven, and at the very powerful and moving conclusion he is in his mid-teens. Except, it isn¿t really a conclusion; it¿s just where the story happens to end. (It would certainly be interesting to revisit these characters later in life.) The book comes in a brief 144 pages, but they¿re an intense 144 pages and the book didn¿t need to be any longer. Were I to summarize the book in a single sentence, it would be the following quote. ¿Ma stood up from her chair, lifted the receiver, and placed it back down again in one quick movement¿and for a moment nothing, maybe even a full minute, long enough for our ears and clenched muscles to relax, long enough to remember and realize fully something we had long suspected: that silence was absolution, that quiet was as close to happiness as we would ever get.¿ This is a family drama worth reading.
jmx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first half of the book is pure magic, dreamlike, you just can not cease to wonder how the lives of three "wild" youth and their parents could be so elegantly and adequately described. If the second half, where the main issue is the homosexuality of the younger, could have been only half as good, this book would be one of my (few) "desert island" books. Nevertheless, I still strongly recommend it!
Milehighlibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Powerful and poetic first novel of 3 boys growing up in poverty in New York. Violent, passionate, loving, angry, tragic coming of age story beautifully told.
MicheleKingery on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
To quote the opening lines of Justin Torres' book: "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..." (p. 1)The writing is beautiful. The novel's short length allows the reader to slip in and out of Torres' world in one sitting. You may feel as if your skin's been peeled off in strips afterward.But you still want more.The prose poem chapters are tiny, deliciously cadent jewels that detail the grotesque and glorious life of a dysfunctional family. There is love within the walls of that house, but never enough and too often it devolves into brutality or push-brooms after it sweeping up the shrapnel of imploded dreams and souls.Ma and Paps start having babies in their teens. They grind through the half-lit days in varying stages of grief, rage and despair. Ma slogs through the graveyard shift at the brewery and at home afterward, sleep-deprived and addled. Paps gets jobs but mostly loses them. He takes out his frustration with his fists or a shovel, digging a trench in the back yard, a symbolic grave for dead dreams and hope that will never come to fruition.The unnamed narrator and his brothers carom off each other and smash into the world around them. They destroy property and abuse one another in fruitless pursuit of lasting love, shelter and stability. They exist in a state of unassuaged hungers.The next to last chapter departs from the seventeen vignettes preceding it into a short story titled "I Am Made", "made" being urban slang for what? I was never sure. Half-way through that story, the POV changes from first to third person, amping up the pathos but distancing the reader. The introduction of a "journal" comes as a complete shoe from the blue considering its vital role in the novel's denouement.We need to know more.The final two paragraph chapter is abstract and truncated. I'd come to care about the narrator and found the sense of incompleteness unsatisfying.We The Animals shouts, screams, and whimpers across its hundred and twenty-five pages. It pummels the reader to attention, bruises the sensibilities, scrapes at the soul and doesn't give a damn.I just wish there'd been more of it.Help other customers find the most helpful reviews Was this review helpful to you? Yes No
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Understated and poetic, this is one of those novels that, however short, is still powerful and brilliant. Torres' writing is spot-on, and the characters are both believable and entertaining. For all of this, the downfall is in the end the length of the book--everything is so packed into a short space that the book just doesn't have the impact which it might otherwise. Much of the book is spent with readers getting to know the characters, and while all of that time is well-spent, the climax and ending pages come far too quickly for the slow and subtle build-up. I'll read more of Torres' work, and might well recommend this one, but I hope that in the future he'll take his time with the action and last fourth of the book, as he did in the first half and beginning pages.
amhamilt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It was a quick read, but a little too disjointed for me. I would call it 'just okay,' not better, not worse.
brianinbuffalo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I will be stunned if Torres' haunting new novel doesn't sprint to the top of the bestseller lists. "We the Animals" is one of the more riveting and unique books I've read in the past year. The author's Spartan style is piercing. He manages to skilfully weave together a series of incredibly short tales that paint a revealing portrait of a dysfunctional family. It's truly a literary roller-coaster ride right up until the final passages. My only critique is that a few of the central characters could have been developed a bit further. Still, this is a coming-of-age yarn that you won't soon forget.
wilsonknut on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
We the Animals by Justin Torres is at once beautiful and disappointing. Torres¿s prose is poetic, and reminds me of an old favorite of mine, Sandra Cisneros. Torres¿s writing has a darker undercurrent though. He begins the book: "We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped out spoons against our empty bowls, we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots¿ We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more."The story is told by the youngest of these three brothers. The narrator turns 7 in the fourth chapter of this slim novel. Age 7 is symbolically the age boys leave their mothers and follow their fathers. It is ultimately his coming-of-age story, but the majority of the narrative is told in the first person plural. The three brothers grow up in poverty in a dysfunctional family, and the bond between them gives the story its weight. Yet, Torres shows us very early during that seventh birthday that our narrator is to be singled out. "Then Ma leaned in and whispered more in my ear, told me more, about why she needed me six. She whispered it all to me, her need so big, no softness anywhere, only Paps and boys turning into Paps. It wasn¿t just the cooing words, but the damp of her voice, the tinge of pain¿it was the warm closeness of her bruises¿that sparked me."Torres masterfully builds the bond between the brothers. They are outsiders caught in the middle of the turbulent relationship between their mother and father. They are outsiders in their neighborhood, as poor sons of an interracial marriage. In one scene, the boys are pretending to be trolls in front of the drugstore. A pregnant woman stops and speaks to them. Torres summons Gwendolyn Brooks¿s ¿We Real Cool¿ in a roundabout way. ¿Don¿t you all know how to be proper?¿ We looked at our sneakers. Manny swept up the change from the ground and pressed it into her hand. ¿Here,¿ he said, ¿give this to your baby. Tell him it¿s from us.¿ ¿Us who?¿ ¿Us three.¿ ¿Us brothers.¿ ¿Us Musketeers.¿ ¿Us tricks.¿If you have ever studied ¿We Real Cool,¿ you may remember that it doesn¿t end well for the ¿We.¿ In fact, they may not have as tight a bond as they think. It is obvious from the beginning of this novel that the only way the story could work is if the narrator somehow becomes his own person. Torres drops hints and symbols all along the way. Yet, Torres¿s choices in the key plot and character development are what I find disappointing.There is a scene that comes out of nowhere three quarters of the way through the book that immediately signals that this is a coming-of-age novel about sexual awakening, and that sexual awakening defines the narrator¿s identity and separation from the ¿Us.¿ From that point in the novel the ¿we¿ slowly dissolves into ¿I¿ and ¿them.¿ The narrator states, ¿They smelled my difference¿my sharp, sad, pansy scent.¿The last few chapters of the book don¿t seem as carefully written. The narrator is smarter than his brothers. They are drunk and violent copies of his father. He resents them and is embarrassed by them. The reader is simply told that the mother and father privately speak to him about his potential. He is college bound. Inevitably, the narrator is more self-destructive than his brothers.It is a beautifully written book. I was just disappointed in the choice of that key plot element, which ruined the last quarter of the book for me. It just seems trite. In a book that spends so much time building this complex relationship between the brothers, mother, and father; I think it¿s a cop out to resolve the narrator¿s individuality this way. Perhaps that is my flaw as a reader, and I¿m willing to accept that.
bookappeal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A visceral vision of three boys, told from the perspective of the youngest, growing up in near poverty with their white mother and proudly Puerto Rican father. The household is charged with hormones - the boys are constantly fighting, scrapping, running, eating; their parents frequently display their obvious sexual attraction. But the family is also charged with the desperateness of their situation and they blame and hate each other just as fiercely as they love.Torres uses spare, vibrant language to place the reader right beside the narrator as he discovers his true nature in this intense family.