We the Animals : A novel

by Justin Torres


A debut novel that is a brilliant exploration of a close, complicated family and the struggle between brotherhood and becoming an individual 


  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547576725
  • ISBN-10: 0547576722
  • Pages: 144
  • Publication Date: 08/30/2011
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
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  • 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.

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  • Other Books By The Author


  • 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 ra...

  • "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 negl...