This review contains spoilers
I’ve become wary of reviews or lists that describe certain books as essential to a particular racial, ethnic, or religious experience. Individual novels cannot speak for any group that contains—oftentimes—millions of people because experiences are only shared in part.
Junot Diaz, one of the greatest writers I’ve ever encountered, frequently discusses the impact his 2008 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, has had on discussions of race, diaspora, and the Dominican experience. Many people have told him that their lives as Dominican immigrants or Dominican-Americans in the United States are nothing like what was described in Oscar Wao, while many others have hailed it as THE definitive novel of this shared experience. Diaz rightfully describes this label as daunting, but points to an interesting phenomenon among readers who encounter a book that’s so specific in its detail that it becomes universal.
Three years or so ago, that was my reaction to Oscar Wao when I read it for the first time. Never before had I encountered a book that rendered language with such precision. I felt like I was reading conversations that occurred within my own family. Oscar’s bat shit crazy family, separated from its island and forced to dwell in urban misery, was my family. I knew those people. I had heard their stories.
But that connection is tenuous. I keep reminding myself that there’s this overarching Latin American tradition when it comes to storytelling that stems from post-colonial trauma—that way of recounting the most mundane occurrence in such a way that it becomes otherworldly.
I imagine to outsiders listening in, these stories would seem fantastical, but to us–that is, those of us whose upbringing was built on these family myths—they’re just stories. Diaz captured this essence in his novel, and since then I’ve kept an eye out for novels that might accomplish the same thing.
That’s why I read Justin Torres‘ We the Animals.
It’s difficult to write about and discuss books with impartiality when you’ve read them with a distinct personal interest. I am a reader who will, at times, pick up a novel because something about it mirrors my own life. Perhaps in an attempt to make sense of things that have never been clear to me, or to reaffirm my suspicion that there might be other people around who share my VERY specific ethnic and cultural upbringing.
And so I encountered the trio of animals, raised by their parents, Paps and Ma, in upstate New York. Paps is a dark, Afro-d Puerto Rican. Ma is a bird-like Italian. They were teenage parents from Brooklyn.
Our narrator asks, “Who knows this mutt life, this race mixing?”
I know how to answer that one:
My father is a dark, mustachioed Puerto Rican who got himself through a lot of weird shit. My mother is a half Italian/half Yugoslavian powerhouse—an aggressive and loving woman.
As a child, I used to bring my ethnicity up in conversation as much as possible. It was the glittering jewel that set me apart from everyone else in a predominantly white Catholic school. My ethnicity gave me “other” status, which I wore with pride as something that made me unique until I realized I couldn’t communicate with anyone.
You realize you’re not really Puerto Rican enough.
You’re not really white enough either.
When you’re ostracized from the parts that built the whole, you get weird.
You’re a half-breed.
And where you’re growing up, not a very common one.
Your parents are from the city, and they sound funny to other people. Rough around the edges. Street-wise. Ready to cut a punk who gets in their face.
All of these thoughts kept floating through my head as I read this slight, beautiful book, and to those experiences of mine that the narrator and his brothers were also had, I felt connected.
We were animals too—raised in an area of sprawling farmland to cagey, displaced urbanites.
But these boys were allowed to ravage things and rebuke their parents for releasing them—the animals—onto people who had a history; white trash roots.
We were contained.
Probably for the best.
These three boys tear up everything. Smashing, screaming and ripping their way into being. It’s jarring to witness, but they make quite an entrance.
Torres has a stunning command of poetic language. Every action a character takes in the novel creates an almost palpable sensation in the reader. There are images he evokes that pierce through the pages.
Those elements make this brief story transcend the 144 pages in which it’s bound.
But these little boys grew up in the blink of an eye. There was very little to bridge the gap between the young animals smashing through things and the teenagers smashing through things.
Toward the end, our narrator’s brothers have noticed that he is different from them—not quite as keen on exerting his physicality. He’s a scholar. His parents tell him he’s going places.
Torres doesn’t spend much time documenting the changes and develops a convention in which the course of one night damages his relationship with his family of animals forever.
He leaves his brothers at the moment when they begin to hone in on how different he is. He finds a lover and goes home to discover that Ma has found his journal—a sordid book that documents his darkest sexual fantasies with men in the town’s bus station bathroom.
They have him committed to a mental institution, and he never sees them again.
What becomes of an animal when it’s separated from the ones made like it?
On a hopeful note, Torres posits the image of one finding a home in others.
Maybe they’ll smash through things. Maybe they won’t.
Maybe our narrator will rest.