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It’s tempting to label We the Animals a novella with its language resembling the best of what flash fiction can do: rollicking, lyrical prose, scenes stitched together like snippets of memories, sentences so full of heart they seem to pulsate on the page. Unlike novellas and slip-stream fiction, We the Animals tells a bigger story that’s less on soft, fuzzy edges and more on dimensions and conflicted characters.
Justin Torres’ fantastically crafted debut is the story of three young brothers, all gnashing teeth and insatiable appetites, growing up in a dysfunctional family. Though the D word is never used it soon becomes clear these wild, untamed children rely on each other for their needs rather than their parents. And that’s not to assign blame, Paps and Ma work overnight jobs in breweries, as night owl watchmen. Dinners are cans of soup and saltines. But the animals, these feral boys, these hungry cubs, go to war with sharpened Popsicle sticks; they have secret tunnels in housing crawlspaces. They never know stillness.
Torres’ deft, lyrical writing separates Animals from other novels celebrating boyhood; Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life or Stephen King’s The Body . While those narratives revel in classic storytelling, We the Animals is all pathos. It recalls the sweet, of being a wild, carefree boy, with the sour, of growing up hungry and often with an absent father. Torres’ flourishes with his prose, by always remaining emotionally generous, and by writing with all heart and all magic.