Justin Torres’s We The Animals is a slender volume and a perfect example of quality being unrelated to quantity. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this (his first) novel, and a reviewer’s comment that the book feels like a sets of old school home movies certainly rings true for me. The book takes us along as the young protagonist and his brothers grow up around each other with little influence of their parents. Some scenes are intensely beautiful and strange — the boys, dressed in raincoats, smash tomatoes with a hammer because they’d seen people on TV doing it and “having the time of their lives.” The boys want to have the time of their lives, they want to live. They run out of tomatoes and carry on with lotion bottles. When their overwhelmed mother finally appears, takes in the mess and explains (to the exasperation of the boys) that this is what they looked like then she gave birth to them, she has only one desire: “Make me born,” she asks of her young sons, a gesture of despair and hope at the same time.
There are several such crucial (in my mind) scenes throughout the novel, like when the youngest son almost drowns, and when the father makes his sons dance in the kitchen to show them their heritage. The ending, for me personally, was a bit cringeworthy (the trope of the trip to the psych ward — it’s been done), and I was disappointed because of the tone and perspective change.
This, however, is only the last few pages. For the most part, the language in this novel (novella?) is beautiful, tight, and downright poetic, enjoyable and captivating.
I love the cover design of this book: the image of the children running, jumping against the sky and the sun, the glare, the complete uncertainty of what is around them and the abandon with which they throw themselves into the world. This novel is about growing into place in a world that is strange and doesn’t really have a place for you. The boys don’t fit — their culture is not mainstream American, nor is it their father’s culture, rather it is like the development we’ve already seen in Ernesto Quinonez’ Bodega Dreams — a new culture, a hybrid that is more than the sum of its parts, and different from the sum of its parts like a cake is different from its uncooked ingredients.
The boys don’t fit anywhere but among each other, until their age differences begin to show and the two older brothers separate themselves from the youngest, our central figure. It doesn’t help that their youngest brother, as he matures — in a culture with a strong element of machismo — turns out to be gay, which in his brother’s eyes (and likely in his own) separates him even from his small cultural tribe of three which the boys form at the very beginning of the book. While his tribe is getting smaller as he grows up, his brothers’ tribe is getting bigger as they are finding places to fit in — even if it gets them into trouble.
This book is a quick read, less than 150 pages, and I think it’s well worth reading. The stories of second and third generation immigrants are even more interesting to me than those of first generation immigrants. I find the narratives of blended and new cultures fascinating.
In Germany, as in any country to which people emigrate, there are similar narratives, — I realize that there are differences between the different groups of Latinos who came / are coming to the US and that the situation of the Italian and Turkish people in Germany is again different, but I see parallel phenomena: the youth who grow up neither fully one nor the other form their own tribes. They have their language, even more so than children (and especially teenagers) already do, often a mix of both grammars and lexicons, and they have their own values and rules. (German language article / interview with the young woman above: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/muenchen/deutsche-tuerken-generation-die-deutschen-kennen-uns-nicht-wirklich-gut-1.736269)
I realize this post is not as detailed as some of the other Latino literature posts, but I hope I’ve piqued your curiosity and that you’ll mosey on over to the nearest public library and ask for this book. It’s hard to say much more about it without spoiling the fun of reading.
We’re very lucky to get to hear Justin Torres read this coming Wednesday (March 19th, 2014), as part of the Center for Writers Visiting Writer’s Series. The reading starts at 7:30pm and is free. Location: ground floor auditorium of the International Center, USM Hattiesburg campus.