THE AMERICAN NOVEL has given us its share of troubled young protagonists. Think of Holden Caulfield, or Scout Finch; of Rhoda Penmark in William March's 1954 novel The Bad Seed, or of the Curtis brothers gang in S.E. Hinton's classic The Outsiders. More recently, we've had Chappie from Russell Banks's Rule of the Bone, Legs Sandowsky from Joyce Carol Oates's Foxfire, and the various narrators of Junot Díaz's Drown. These youngsters, all burdened with the universal adolescent struggle to fit in — their individual values, dreams, and desires butting up against familial or societal pressure to conform — appeal to us largely for their willingness to say, think, and do the things so many of us wish we could, or had. In so doing, they become antiheroes, survivors of the hard-won transitional stages between childhood and adulthood, freedom and obligation.
Justin Torres's debut novel We the Animals follows not one but three of these antiheroes — the unnamed narrator and his older brothers Manny and Joel (all three under 10 at the beginning of the novel) — as they navigate both the usual adolescent in-betweens and another, more culturally specific one: They are, as their father (who they call "Paps") tells them, "Mutts ... You ain't white and you ain't Puerto Rican." But the brothers don't suffer this condition in isolation or silence; in fact, they revel in their common in-betweenness: "The magic of God is three." This strong sibling bond provides much needed support to all three boys as they struggle to survive their parents' troubled marriage in an economically depressed home. The boys run amok "like animals" — they refer to themselves also as, "Us brothers, Us Musketeers" — an unholy trinity of rambunctious and destructive pre-adolescents always hungering for more, "more volume, more riots." They associate with no other friends, cousins or neighborhood kids because, the narrator tells us, "we didn't need them; we had each other for games and hunts and scraps."
The majority of the story, and of the boys' lives and educations, takes place within the home, with a few adventures in the nearby woods and trailer parks (the two mentions of school in the novel refer to the boys' truancy rather than their participation). Home is not an entirely comfortable place. Paps is loud and abusive, and has a penchant for disappearing without notice. He is admired only for his strength and masculinity: "He was a strong man, our Paps, he knew how to hold on to all three of us at once." Ma, on the other hand, is petite and fragile, a "goose of a woman ... with her backaches and headaches and tired, tired ways." The boys develop an instinct to protect her, especially from Paps, who often sweeps her off aggressively into the bedroom as she flashes her sons an apologetic smile. Though she spends more time at home than her husband, Ma is usually asleep and, when awake, is full of mixed messages: She becomes enraged when Paps buys a truck without enough seatbelts, but when she walks into the kitchen where the boys are crushing tomatoes and bottles of lotion with a mallet, she joins in.
As the novel progresses, each new episode more outlandish than the one before, it becomes apparent that the unnamed narrator, who gradually emerges as Torres's main protagonist, has a sensibility and perspective that sets him apart. As the youngest (who Ma makes promise "to stay six forever" so that he will...