We the Animals by Justin Torres; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 128 pages, $18. You don't often find information in perfectly encapsulated form in the publicity material accompanying the fictional debuts of 31-year-old novelists. But I did in an interview included in the publicity material that was sent along with Justin Torres' terse, phosphorescent and utterly extraordinary new novel "We the Animals."
Torres was talking to a journalist about the amount of autobiography in the book, which is about a young boy growing up wild with two older brothers and two socially isolated teen parents from Brooklyn who all lived a tough, often brutal, life in a small town blanketed with snow.
Torres grew up in Baldwinsville, just outside of Syracuse. He has two older brothers and parents from Brooklyn who began to have children as teenagers. His mother, in the novel, is white and his father is Puerto Rican (Torres told the New Yorker in a separate interview: "I grew up in a very white town We certainly stuck out on our block. Our parents were so young, so Brooklyn and our father was so Puerto Rican.")
And it's an admitted part of his real autobiography that he was so troublesome and baffling to his family at one point that they had him committed to a mental hospital (where a blessed teacher brought enough students with her to visit that they could convene an English class in the mental hospital).
And in that interview Torres explains that when his brothers read his account of growing up savage and hopelessly alien, they told him they remembered incidents in his book. "No you didn't," replied Torres, because despite the autobiographical framework, he made them up.
And so it is with Torres' very short book, composed of short, electrically charged chapters of intimate prose as poetic as it is plain. It is storm as narrative: Things happen in intense lightning flashes. Lest anyone think it is garden variety prose from an alumnus of the University of Iowa's Creative Writing Program (Carver, etc.), it ceases to be that in short order and becomes something lacerating, beautiful, singular and powerful. One of the year's most important fictional debuts by any standard.
-- Jeff Simon