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 not be lost to the wild boy netherworld of 7 and beyond), he has an ascribed role: Manny makes the rules, Joel breaks them, and he “[kept] the peace as best I could, which sometimes meant nothing more than falling down to my knees and covering my head with my arms and letting them swing and cuss until they got tired, or bored, or remorseful.” As the runt of the litter, he’s often the one watching from the sidelines (“They smelled my difference — my sharp, sad, pansy scent”), so he’s privy to the few secrets kept in the crowded house. As a result, he becomes the family’s confidant, and, in a sense, its conscience. But he finds himself isolated by a personal struggle he is unable to share with his brothers: his homosexuality, which sets him even further apart from what is considered “normal.”
This sensitivity and attunement to the complexities and contradictions of his environment is what distinguishes the young narrator from the typical child. Like so many of his indelible literary forerunners, Torres’s narrator is not necessarily wiser than his peers, just more aware. The young narrator reveals his private struggle with homosexuality, a taboo in his household for which he doesn’t seek guidance or counsel. As it turns out, they do not offer him comfort or help when his naughty journal is discovered, filled with sexual fantasies about strangers who utilize the men’s room at the local bus station. The inevitable rupture takes place when he realizes that he’s not speaking the same language as the other citizens of the small world he inhabits. When he opts out, exhausted by his participation in the boys’ everyday mischief — “I’m tired of this. This is bullshit. This creeping around” — his brothers interpret this as a betrayal or an insurrection, horrified that one-third of the “three-torsoed beast” wants to break off. They don’t understand, and never will, that he’s also referring to the “creeping around” he’s been doing on his own, catching stealthy glimpses of adult men, and that he has already started to drift away from them.
Once the family recognizes the young narrator as gay, he becomes a complete stranger, an outsider invading the sanctity of the home. The members of his family must now reassess each intimate interaction, conversation, and exchange in an attempt to locate the cause of his intangible, mysterious affliction. Their painfully antiquated solution to the problem will stun readers. I hope it will also generate a necessary dialogue about what it means to place a gay child within a tradition — the young adult “coming of age” novel — that we’re more used to seeing through a heterosexual lens (with a few rare exceptions, such as Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys, Julie Anne Peters’s Luna, and David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy).
It’s sad indeed that We the Animals — like most literary works with homosexual content, aside from Greek mythology — will not make most high school reading lists without controversy, if at all. But even if it’s kept off reading lists and library shelves, Torres’s book will undoubtedly find an audience in a number of other communities, including the Latino, LGBT, and both young adult and adult readerships. This brief but extraordinary novel defies easy categorization, but in it Torres demonstrates a mastery of prose seldom encountered in first books. It’s an exhilarating beginning for a young writer.