We the Animals by Justin Torres is a savage little book. It claims on the cover to be a novel. One could argue it is really a novella or a collection of interwoven short stories but, really, that is of little consequence. The fact is, We the Animals will draw you in like a novel and not let you stop until you are finished. It is a short, fast, wicked little ride—just 125 small, sparse pages—that leaves you feeling a little breathless and beat up when it finally spits you out.
“We wanted more,” is the title of the first chapter and also the first line of the novel, but what We the Animals really gives us is a very powerful less. The prose is a trimmed-down, fast-moving, poetic sort of language. Sparse and hard-hitting, it conserves energy like an inner-city boxer who’s going the full twelve rounds, or a working-class Puerto Rican father from Brooklyn slowly pulling off his belt, knowing he has to save his arm because he has a whole tribe of little boys who need whippings. “We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.” Economy of movement throughout this book gives the prose and story a sparse, powerful feel.
We the Animals is the story of three little boys growing up in a slightly dysfunctional, but not uncommonly so, working-class family in upstate New York. Their parents are refugees from Brooklyn. Ma is white and works a mind-numbing night shift at a local brewery. Paps is Puerto Rican and sometimes unemployed. The parents have a somewhat stormy and volatile relationship, but it endures. They alternately love—and are overwhelmed—by their three young boys; as many parents in households with lots of mouths and limited financial and emotional resources so often are. As parents, they are comfortable exposing their children to the extremes of their relationship. We see this adult violence and sexuality in a somewhat disturbing way through the eyes of their three young boys.
The children, the animals, as Torres self-names them, are often left to their own devices; fighting with each other and casually making huge messes in their house. They destroy things and vandalize their neighborhood in the sort of adventures that will be familiar to anyone who remembers as a child growing up with absent parents and a lack of adult supervision. The book follows the family through the highs and lows of their working class life. It is filled with both joy and anger but carries an undercurrent of menace, violence, and dark sexuality throughout. If you are looking for a happy, uplifting, working class pastoral then this book is not for you. If you like your stories a little gritty and tense and are not uncomfortable with an undercurrent of casual violence and sexuality, then We the Animals is a three-hour rush you will enjoy. –Jesse Sensibar (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)