Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Torres leaves you wanting more

Originally printed Sept. 21, 2011.

The only problem with Justin Torres's "We The Animals" is that I'm left wishing the 125-page book was longer.

Not that I usually would want to read more about such a troubled childhood -- the narrator and his brothers are left on their own so much that they almost go feral. Or more about a woman who becomes a mother at 14 and then slips in and out of a poverty-induced depression and basically leaves her children to fend for themselves. Or more about a father who literally leaves his wife and youngest son to sink or swim.

But Torres had me hooked.

His 125-page book sits nicely alongside Piri Thomas's "Down These Mean Streets" and Junot Díaz's "Drown" for its focus on Latino self-identity and the exploration of color lines within the color line.

And as a widely dysfunctional family tale, "We The Animals" is on the order of Jeannette Wahls's "The Glass Castle."

Throw in how "We The Animals" also is a coming of age sexuality tale, and it's hard to imagine any writer -- especially a first-time novelist -- living up to all those literary predecessors in a mere 125 pages.

So it's not surprising that Torres doesn't quite pull it off. He leaves it up to his readers to fill in all the context and content that he doesn't think necessary to provide.

Torres does provide some of that missing context through interviews. He explains that none of the specific events in his novel actually happened the way they were written. But he also stresses that what he wrote is so close to the feeling of what his childhood was like that his brothers claim to "remember" the events described as if they actually had happened.

I'm left wishing more information was included in the later parts of the storyline. Maybe then the ending -- in which the animal/feral metaphors overwhelm the otherwise straightforward, hard-hitting, descriptive vignettes -- wouldn't come across as some kind of dark, existential reworking of "Where the Wild Things Are."

If fleshed out a bit more, "We The Animals" still would be worthy of all the blurbish praise it's received from Pulitzer Prize winners Paul Harding, Michael Cunningham and Marilynne Robinson. But that praise would be for a story that fully develops rather than ends abruptly.

"We The Animals" does make me look forward to Torres's next book -- and I think there's still plenty of room for him to pick up right where this one left off.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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