Tuesday, June 28, 2011

We the Animals

Last week I predicted that I'd tear through it and be blown away by it. Today I pronounce myself prescient. Didn't take much; anyone who's read any of his work knows going in that We the Animals is going to be a rare reading experience. And so it is. Justin Torres's writing is raw, piercing. It's unbearable yet un-put-down-able.

In a series of short takes, each scene unstitched with a surgical precision that leaves the reader stunned and short of breath, Justin lays bare the complex dynamic of pain, love, rage and laughter that is the family of the first-person narrator, a young boy, youngest of three brothers. These are rough waters. It seems at times it'll be a miracle if he makes it to shore. You so much want him to.
Along with the exquisite artistry of his writing, deep emotional insight, and profound humanity, Justin offers here something that I particularly value. In his depiction of what it would be too glib to label dysfunction in an oppressed working-class family barely getting by, he lays bare some of what this system does to those it exploits most. How the desperation of never having enough—money, respect, time, support—plays out in violence, drink, love expressed as its opposite, hurt all around.

Capitalism, it seems to me, gives love a hard go of it. I think there is an accurate reflection of this in We the Animals.

By the way, I've taken the liberty here of referring to the author by his first name because, as I've mentioned before, I know him a little, having spent a week with him a few years ago at a writing retreat. In an interview in the PR material, Justin makes the point, as so many authors must, that this is fiction, not memoir. It is nevertheless true, as he also says, that the book's framework—the family he portrays, its circumstances— is based on his family. He may not have lived through every story told in these pages, but he sure went through some stuff.

It reminds me again of how many wondrous talented writers and artists are out there who never get a chance to fulfill their potential. We are all so lucky that here, in Justin Torres, is one who made it to where he ought to be.

The book is out the first week in September, which is also when Justin's book tour starts. I've already marked my calendar for his first stop here in New York, at the New School on September 12. He'll also be going to San Francisco, Boston, D.C., Syracuse, Austin, Iowa City, Portland, and Los Angeles, so get yourself to hear him read if you can.