Thursday 1 March 2012

We The Animals - Justin Torres

'a fistful of seed'

With the very first line of Anna Karenina Tolstoy asserted that 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' Like Wilde's epigrams it is one of those pithy sentences that sounds wise and true because it is so neat. There is of course something a little patronising about it and I'm not sure I know any of these 'happy' families, everyone's insanely stressed nowadays, aren't they? Anyway, I mention it because this is already my third book this year that shows just how different those 'unhappy' families can be (see The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst reviewed here and This Is Paradise by Will Eaves reviewed here). Torres' slim debut is packed full of memorable images, scenes and moments that describe beautifully the unique trials of a family, and it is the sheer concentration of those into so few pages that helps to elevate it above the other two in terms of achievement. There are occasions when it too obviously shows off the arrival of a 'new voice' but each one of those is balanced out by moments of truly brilliant writing that deserve all of the accolades this book has already earned and will go on to achieve.

The book itself has an interesting format. The contents page shows several titles and their page numbers so that it first resembles a story collection. In many ways that is what this is, although they are all linked; we might accurately describe these as vignettes of childhood. Now I gave Verhulst a tough time for pulling the same trick in his book but there's something about the brevity here that makes sense of it. Many are just a page or two and in that manner Torres gives us a whistlestop tour of his, ahem, I mean his narrator's childhood. About to turn seven at the outset he has two brothers, Manny the eldest and Joel between them. Paps is Puerto Rican, Ma is white, both are from Brooklyn but had to marry in Texas in order to do it legally when Ma first got pregnant at 14 (and Paps just 16). The three brothers, as the title suggests, are often depicted like animals as they hurtle through childhood, beginning as birds in the opening chapter We Wanted More.

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 heads, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

When it's cold they huddle together for warmth, when their father comes home and beats them they take it together, and when they play it's rough or involves them hunting together like a pack. Their mother works graveyard shifts at the local brewery, often getting confused as to what time of day or even day it is. The boys learn not to correct her after a while, it being easier than the time she tried to send Joel next door at midnight to get butter so she could make a cake for Manny

"Ma, you're crazy," Joel said. "Everyone's sleeping, and it's not even his birthday."
..."I hate my life," she said.
That made Joel cry, and Manny punched him hard on the back of the head.
"Nice one, ass wipe," 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.

Ma is also a victim of abuse. On the morning of our narrator's seventh birthday she has been holed up in bed for a couple of days with swollen purple cheeks, the result the boys believe (because their father told them so) of a visit to the dentist ('that's how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out'). What she's really upset about however is that her baby boy is turning seven, the age at which her other two changed, no longer happy to sit on her lap and be cuddled, far more interested in wrestling and smashing things. This whirlwind of a novel has a pretty quick tempo on the whole but every now and then there are moments of suspension so that we can notice something tender, something beautiful, something cruel or something heartbreaking.

Ma could hold tears on her eyelids longer than anyone; some days she walked around like that for hours, holding them there, not letting them drop. On those days she would trace a finger over the shapes of things or hold the telephone on her lap, silent, and you had to call her name three times before she'd give you her eyes.

These moments aren't always as sad as you might expect. Whilst their father is clearly a man of brutish strength and quick temper he also has moments when he shows not just tenderness but insight too. When he takes his youngest son on an errand up to Niagra on one occasion he leaves him alone in a museum of curiosities for a while. Our narrator watches a film about the daredevils who tossed themselves over the famous Falls in barrels. Alone in the room and seeing the film projection on his body he begins to do a dance for himself and only notices his father watching from the doorway when he finishes. His father says nothing until many hours later when they pull onto the road that will lead them to their home.

"I stood in that doorway, watching you dance, and you know what I was thinking?...I was thinking how pretty you were," he said. "Now, isn't that an odd thing for a father to think about his son? But that's what it was. I was standing there, watching you dance and twirl and move like that, and I was thinking to myself, Goddamn, I got me a pretty one."

This tight family experience it all together, the three boys witness to their parents lows and even, in one eye-opening scene for them, their highs. Even the possible life-changing moment when Ma bundles boys and a few hastily grabbed possessions into the new truck she so hated her husband buying (it being a totally impractical bit of posturing without even enough seatbelts for the family) ends with them all returning at the end of the day, having experienced worry that she might actually do it, excitement at the change and finally as they drive back up to the house 'when it was safe to feel let down, we did.' Outside of the home the boys know that their best hope for survival is together and they tend to roam about as a pack. As they grow older their wish to escape is tempered by a sense of how dangerous and difficult the world around them is. Manny's increasingly religious talk leads him declare, after another abortive attempt at flight, that "God's scattered all the clean among the dirty. You and me and Joel, we're nothing more than a fistful of seed that God tossed into the mud and horseshit. We're on our own."

But we always sense as they approach adolescence and young-adulthood that this bond, however violent and punishing, will not be able to hold and it is naturally our sensitive and bookish narrator who will become separated. The way in which his sexual awakening is used to finally break that tie is perhaps a little predictable and neat but there is no doubting the power of the final few chapters and the very real pain of this family. In the same way that we all recall just flashes of our own childhood's Torres' novel selects those enlightening moments, not like photographs as such because nothing about this book is static, but Kodak moments nonetheless, the paper now tinged and dirty, colours still vivid and yet somehow not true, and all of it passed by rather than past.


Simon (Savidge Reads) 2 March 2012 at 17:30  

Great review Will. I had the pleasure of a single sitting with this book a week or two ago and thought it was very good indeed. (I have a review coming next week.) I thought the snapshot aspect of the book was very deftly done, as was the hints at the awful (and touching to be fair) things that happened to the boys as they grew up. It's hinted at but the reader goes away and makes of it what they will.

Weirdly I interviewed Justin last night with Gavin for The Readers Podcast next week and he was brilliant, and he said he finds the 'autobiographical' tag the book has been given a bit bizarre.

William Rycroft 4 March 2012 at 21:04  

Ooh, I can't wait to hear that interview, when will it be available?

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