'We The Animals' Delivers A Fiery Ode To Boyhood Justin Torres' debut novel is a welterweight champ of a book. It tells the story of three brothers growing up in a family that is both fiercely loyal and violently chaotic. Together, they endure their parents, their poverty and, of course, each other.
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'We The Animals' Delivers A Fiery Ode To Boyhood

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'We The Animals' Delivers A Fiery Ode To Boyhood

'We The Animals' Delivers A Fiery Ode To Boyhood

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SCOTT SIMON, host: Justin Torres's debut novel is a welterweight champ of a book, short - at just 125 pages - but taut, elegant, sinewy and lean, and it delivers a knockout. "We the Animals" tells the story of three boys growing up in upstate New York, as told through the eyes of the youngest son. Their parents started having babies as Brooklyn teenagers. They work hard - Ma on a brewery's night shift, Pops does odd jobs and drives a truck - but they're poor. Their boys always seem to scramble and scrap - for more food, a little attention, a little more joy. Both the boys and their parents smack each other brutally, and rely only on each other utterly. Their story is told in a series of scenes that burst open like exploding stars, full of violence and light. "We the Animals" is the first novel by Justin Torres, who grew up in upstate New York He's a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. He joins us is our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

JUSTIN TORRES: Thank you. Thanks for that wonderful introduction.

SIMON: Well, the book deserves it.

TORRES: Thank you

SIMON: Is this your story?

TORRES: It is loosely based on my own autobiography. So I have two brothers, my mother worked in a brewery. My parents were teenagers when they started having kids. But the incidents are fiction. I wanted to make myth out of family, I wanted to get to an emotional truth that I think fiction can really deliver.

SIMON: As we noted, this book is I mean it's like a diamond, brilliant and brilliantly compressed. But have you been writing it like all your life?

TORRES: I have. I've been - ever since I kind of started writing. I started late, my mid-20s. It's been five or six years that I've been working on this book, until I got to this - simple and clear and precise and concise as I could.

SIMON: I want to get you to expand on that wonderful phrase where you refer to the brothers as the three-torsoed beast.


TORRES: I think that there is a kind of pack mentality that really close brothers can have. And there's a way in which they can communicate nonverbally and almost behave as just one being, understanding each other's impulses and instincts. And I think that the brothers in this book do that. They run around and they just get each other as they move into adolescence. It becomes more necessary and more difficult to communicate verbally.

SIMON: Yeah. The book grabs you from the first lines. So why don't we ask you to read those first lines, if you could.

TORRES: I'd love to. (Reading) We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

When it was cold, we fought over blankets until the cloth tore down the middle. When it was really cold, when our breath came out in frosty clouds, Manny crawled into bed with Joel and me. Body heat, he said. Body heat, we agreed. We wanted more flesh, more blood, more warmth.

When we fought, we fought, we fought with boots and garage tools, snapping pliers. We grabbed at whatever was nearest and we hurled it through the air. We wanted more broken dishes, more shattered glass. We wanted more crashes.

SIMON: That phrase: we were like three little kings feuding for more.


TORRES: Yeah. Yeah, definitely you have to assert your little feistdom(ph)...


TORRES: ...within the home, and make sure that you rule over your space, otherwise it will get you served pretty quickly.

SIMON: So why are the brothers always wrestling, gouging and smacking each other?


TORRES: You know, there's - I think boys are just inherently exuberant, but there is a lot of passion among the parents and between the parents that is being absorbed...

SIMON: Yeah.

TORRES: ...I think, by the brothers. And, you know, when you see a lot kind of violent passion, you enact a lot of violent passion as a child.

SIMON: We'll explain, Ma is white, father is Puerto Rican and they love each other. They can't keep their hands off each other.


SIMON: But sometimes they can't keep their hands off each other in the worst way too.

TORRES: Yeah, Yeah. I mean they were teenagers when they started this endeavor of raising three boys and they're maybe not as well-equipped as they could be. And then they have this overriding passion that makes them wild.

SIMON: Why is your book so short?

TORRES: I think that the book is so short because of the way that I write. I kind of write sentence by sentence, and I make sure that I have the exact right phrasing and structure and syntax within the sentence before moving to the next one. It takes forever. And I think that I just have a real attraction to precise, stripped-down, clear language.

I think that another reason is that when I started I was working all of these odd jobs.


TORRES: I was still walking dogs or, you know, working in bookstores or whatever. And so I didn't have a lot of time and leisure to just sit and write. You know, I had to get to the point and get to the heat as quickly as possible.

SIMON: Well, I wonder if you can do another reading, on page two through to the end of that paragraph.


SIMON: Okay.

TORRES: (Reading) And when our Pops came home, we got spankings. Our little round butt cheeks were tore up; red, raw, leather-whipped. We knew there was something on the other side of the pain, on the other side of the sting. Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, someplace our Pops was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time. He was awakening us; he was leading us somewhere beyond burning and ripping, and you couldn't get there in a hurry.

SIMON: What's it like for your father to read that?

TORRES: I don't know. I'm sure I'm going to hear about it soon. I hope that I have shown a compassionate enough picture here of a father who is not my father but, you know, there are certain similarities. I hope that that's something he appreciates.

SIMON: Well, Justin Torres, his widely-lauded debut novel, "We the Animals." Thanks so much.

TORRES: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And you can read an excerpt from Justin Torres' novel on our website npr.org.

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