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.
Ma and Paps are from Brooklyn, but they all live Upstate now. She’s white; he’s Puerto Rican; and the boys are feral mutts. They slaughter vegetables with wooden mallets, sword fight with silverware, wallow in mud puddles, and break car windows. But mostly they’re good kids - enchanted by Ma, admiring of Paps, and mesmerized by their parents’ manic marriage. After big fights, Paps sometimes leaves for consecutive nights, but when he comes home, he’s newly impassioned and flirts with Ma like the teenager he almost still is - pinching her bottom and biting her neck “like an apple.’’
Paps’s employment is precarious, and Ma works the graveyard shift at the local brewery, which forces her into a bewildering sleep schedule. She does strange, disoriented things, like piling the boys into the car in the middle of the night to run errands or cooking dinner at dawn. The instability, but ultimate affection, of the family dynamic seems to make more of human nature manifest. It’s easy to be convinced that a certain amount of unpredictability and minor disaster is good for children, that it helps them to develop a more complex understanding of love and morality. Good, at least, for children who will one day write fiction.
The chaos of family life is a matter of course for our young narrator, which is right. That is how children perceive their lives - with complete complacency but only partial understanding. As readers, we’re included in the illegibility. We never really know how to feel about Paps. Is he having affairs with other women? We never really know how to feel about Ma either. Does she drink too much? Only in the final two of the book’s 19 chapters are we asked to question our open-hearted reading, and we do it along with the narrator, as his own credulity contracts.
Even at his most writerly and verbose, Torres writes similes that are age appropriate. When Ma leans back against the bathroom mirror, “her skin touched the skin of her reflection, like a picture I once saw of Siamese twins.’’ And later, our narrator notices that “all across the lawn was the dew, breaking the sun into specks of light, like a million baby suns clinging to the grass.’’ How observant and articulate should the child be? How much should he know? These are always the questions writers must address when their narrators are young. And Torres answers them elegantly, if elliptically. He alludes and eludes with a particularly shrewd memory for what it’s like to live in a world that’s always half-obscured by the very people who brought us here.