Vulnerability within a family can be tricky business. Parents must fail only just enough for their children to know they’re real. So many of us can remember when we first saw our fathers cry or when our mothers turned unreachably private, if only for that moment. When they fought, we saw them as individuals with discernable motives and separate desires; and even when they made up, they retained traces of their discrete identities. Faultless parenting, in the end, doesn’t make for much emotional transparency.
Justin Torres’s debut novel, “We the Animals,’’ is a svelte little book, but in it is proof after proof that domestic distress can inspire compassion in its young witnesses, a worthier goal than a false sense of familial infallibility. “We wanted more’’ opens the first chapter. “We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry.’’ The novel’s unnamed 6-year-old narrator speaks for himself and his two older brothers: “We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight.’’ The voracity - material but also emotional - is what animates most of the book’s prose. “We the Animals’’ is rich in tactile detail and sensory recollection. Crumbs are licked up; torsos are tickled; ditches are dug in the pouring rain. Torres has done here what all good novelists who exploit memory do: He has surveyed his entire childhood and extracted its most pigmented impressions.