In a starred review, we called Justin Torres’ We the Animals, “an exquisitely crafted debut novel—subtle, shimmering and emotionally devastating.” In it, Torres creates a gut-wrenching coming-of-age story about three boys smashing their way through their days while their parents struggle through their unstable marriage and working-class existence.
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Here’s a quick sample:
We all three sat at the kitchen table in our raincoats, and Joel smashed tomatoes with a small rubber mallet. We had seen it on TV: a man with an untamed mustache and a mallet slaughtering vegetables, and people in clear plastic ponchos soaking up the mess, having the time of their lives. We aimed to smile like that. We felt the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding; the guts dripped down the walls and landed on our cheeks and foreheads and congealed in our hair. When we ran out of tomatoes, we went into the bathroom and pulled out tubes of our mother’s lotions from under the sink. We took off our raincoats and positioned ourselves so that when the mallet slammed down and forced out the white cream, it would get everywhere, the creases of our shut-tight eyes and the folds of our ears.
Our mother came into the kitchen, pulling her robe shut and rubbing her eyes, saying, “Man oh man, what time is it?” We told her it was eight-fifteen, and she said fuck, still keeping her eyes closed, just rubbing them harder, and then she said fuck again, louder, and picked up the teakettle and slammed it down on the stove and screamed, “Why aren’t you in school?”
It was eight-fifteen at night, and besides, it was a Sunday, but no one told Ma that. She worked graveyard shifts at the brewery up the hill from our house, and sometimes she got confused. She would wake randomly, mixed up, mistaking one day for another, one hour for the next, order us to brush our teeth and get into PJs and lie in bed in the middle of the day; or when we came into the kitchen in the morning, half asleep, she’d be pulling a meat loaf out of the oven, saying, “What is wrong with you boys? I been calling and calling for dinner.”
We had learned not to correct her or try to pull her out of the confusion; it only made things worse. Once, before we’d known better, Joel refused to go to the neighbors and ask for a stick of butter. It was nearly midnight and she was baking a cake for Manny.
“Ma, you’re crazy,” Joel said. “Everyone’s sleeping, and it’s not even his birthday.”
She studied the clock for a good while, shook her head quickly back and forth, and then focused on Joel; she bored deep in his eyes as if she was looking past his eyeballs, into the lower part of his brain. Her mascara was all smudged and her hair was stiff and thick, curling black around her face and matted down in the back. She looked like a raccoon caught digging in the trash: surprised, dangerous. “I hate my life,” she said.
That made Joel cry, and Manny punched him hard on the back of the head.
“Nice one, asswipe,” he hissed. “It was going to be my fucking birthday.”
After that, we went along with whatever she came up with; we lived in dreamtime. Some nights Ma piled us into the car and drove out to the grocery store, the laundromat, the bank. We stood behind her, giggling, when she pulled at the locked doors, or when she shook the heavy security grating and cursed.
She gasped now, finally noticing the tomato and lotion streaking down our faces. She opened her eyes wide and then squinted. She called us to her side and gently ran a finger across each of our cheeks, cutting through the grease and sludge. She gasped again.
“That’s what you looked like when you slid out of me,” she whispered. “Just like that.”
We all groaned, but she kept on talking about it, about how slimy we were coming out, about how Manny was born with a full head of hair and it shocked her. The first thing she did with each one of us was to count our fingers and toes. “I wanted to make sure they hadn’t left any in there,” she said and sent us into a fit of pretend barfing noises.
“Do it to me.”
“What?” we asked.
“Make me born.”
“We’re out of tomatoes,” Manny said.
We gave her my raincoat because it was the cleanest, and we warned her no matter what not to open her eyes until we said it was OK. She got down on her knees and rested her chin on the table. Joel raised the mallet above his head, and Manny squared the neck of the ketchup bottle between her eyes.
“On the count of three,” we said, and we each took a number—my number was last. We all took the deepest, longest breath we could, sucking the air through our teeth. Everyone had his face all clenched up, his hands squeezed into fists. We sucked in a little more air, and our chests swelled. The room felt like a balloon must, when you’re blowing and blowing and blowing, right before it pops.
And the mallet swung through the air. Our mother yelped and slid to the floor and stayed there, her eyes wide open and ketchup everywhere, looking like she had been shot in the back of the head.
“It’s a mom!” we screamed. “Congratulations!” We ran to the cupboards and pulled out the biggest pots and heaviest ladles and clanged them as loud as we could, dancing around our mother’s body, shouting, “Happy Birthday!...Happy New Year!...It’s zero o’clock!...It’s never-never time!...It’s the time of your life!”
Excerpt from WE THE ANIMALS: A Novel by Justin Torres. Copyright © 2011 by Justin Torres. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.