As this debut novel is all of 125 pages (in hardcover), you have little excuse not to read it in a single sitting … not that you’ll want to be interrupted anyway. When it’s finished, you’ll be wishing for more.
That greed subliminally kicks in on page 1, with the first chapter, “We Wanted More.” Three young brothers – the youngest being the unnamed ‘I’-narrator – “… were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.” Their parents are not much older – their white mother, eight months pregnant, was just 14 when she convinced their 16-year-old Puerto Rican father “to do the right thing, which was to take her on a bus to Texas [from Brooklyn] and marry her.” Both are ninth-grade drop-outs, and while Ma was still in her “teenage years,” the couple settled somewhere upstate from Brooklyn, had three sons but rarely enough food, money, work, sleep, patience, even love. Ma and Paps, too, must have wanted more.
Ma works the graveyard shift at the local brewery and gets night and day confused. Paps works less predictably, cooks meals from his childhood, and tries to teach his hapa boys (“‘Mutts … You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican’”) to mamba – their “heritage” – just as he learned growing up in Spanish Harlem. Their relationship is volatile, with Paps disappearing, Ma mourning, Paps beating, Ma escaping. And yet, in between are lulls of humor and tenderness, smashing tomatoes in the kitchen, playing hide-and-seek in the close-curtained bathtub.
For years, the boys – a single three-headed entity called ‘we’ – explore, watch, tiptoe, laugh, avoid, imitate, learn. Their paths toward adulthood eventually causes shifts, and too soon ‘we’ splits into ‘they’ and ‘I/my’: “They smelled my difference … They believed I would know a world larger than their own. They hated me for my good grades, for my white ways. All at once they were disgusted, and jealous, and deeply protective, and deeply proud.”
Even as Justin Torres‘ coming-of-age narration ends with wrenching revelations and consequences, the final blow is buried in the acknowledgements (spoiler alert!): “Extra special thanks to Laura Iodice, my high school English teacher, who brought me books when I was hospitalized …” In the midst of trying to reclaim some calm at story’s end, you realize that some (most? how much?) of this searing, blinding title must be autobiographical in spite of its ‘novel’-label, and the heart can’t help but splinter for the young man whose desperate mother begged him to always stay her baby boy.
Reading Animals is reminiscent of discovering Julie Otsuka‘s When the Emperor Was Divine: both are powerful debut novels with a brevity that belies the dense intensity captured within the elliptical, careful, just-enough prose; both have breath-snatching endings. Interestingly enough, when you pull up Animals on Amazon, it’s paired with Otsuka’s 2011 National Book Award Finalist, 2012 PEN/Faulkner-winning The Buddha in the Attic, another spare gem. Sure, I’m probably reaching, but that strikes me as a sign of amazing things to come for Torres’s sophomore effort. Humor me, and mark my words …
Tidbit: Serendipity! Justin Torres is one of the National Book Foundation‘s oh so prestigious “5 Under 35” for 2012 (announced September 27, 2012 – yipppeee and whoo hoooo!). His book was chosen by the inimitable Jessica Hagedorn. Another of the 2012 judges was actually Julie Otsuka (!), who chose Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn. Might have to read that, too!