Justin Torres’s novella We the Animals reads more like a somewhat loose connection of stories rather than a novel per se. Each vignette is a glimpse into the world of the narrator, his Puerto Rican father, his white mother, and his two brothers.
We Wanted More
The opening story, “We Wanted More,” immediately connects to the animal theme of the work as a whole. All three of the boys could either be humans or wolves. The unnamed narrator describes their insatiable hunger for everything. The boys want more, more, and more: more food, more growth, more noise, more warmth. The brothers curl up together like a pack of dogs, seeking more of one another’s body heat.
Their authoritarian father, like an alpha wolf, checks their rambunctiousness by disciplining them physically. The boys/pups seem to understand there is something their father necessarily has to teach them, something “beyond the pain.”
Whereas the father comes storming into the scene, scattering the frightened pups, the mother is presented as worn out, tired, and unable to channel her love or properly connect to the harsh, demanding worlds of her children and her husband.
A scene of boyish mayhem opens this chapter. Imitating the prop comedian Gallagher (though he is never named), the three brothers are gathered in their kitchen, wearing raincoats, and taking turns smashing tomatoes and bottles of lotion with a rubber mallet. The tomatoes and lotion spray all over the boys and all over the kitchen.
The reason the boys are left to their own devices soon becomes clear. Their mother works the night shift at a brewery and never gets a proper amount of sleep. She awakens disoriented and disheveled. She does not make much sense, but the boys have learned to just let her think and say as she pleases when she is out of touch. They learn to live “in dreamtime.”
In this particular dreamtime, the mother is just conscious enough to be startled by the mess of tomatoes and lotion covering her children from head to foot. Their appearance reminds her of their births and the fluids that covered them when they “slid out.”
Ma shocks them all when she asks the boys to “do it to me.” She begs them to “make me born.” The boys agree, but underneath their complicity, they all feel helpless to make her life better and squirm under the neediness of her...
(The entire section is 1011 words.)
This chapter explores the dual nature of man, his goodness and his dangerousness. The chapter begins with the three brothers trying stand on one another’s shoulders to “build” a woman. However, like their mother, their creation ends up “helpless” and “flat on her back.”
The boys’ working in threes is symbolically important in this chapter and throughout the work. They are constantly juxtaposing the benevolence and malevolence of the number three: the three monsters of Frankenstein, the Three Musketeers, the Three Bears, and the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The narrator sees himself as being like the Holy Spirit, the most transparent yet least understandable of the band of brothers.
On one of their many unsupervised excursions, the boys meet a pregnant woman in a parking lot and taunt her. She tries to set the boys straight about proper behavior and language. They seem to understand, but when the trio arrives home, they revert to their old selves and employ a caveman-like language as they playfully taunt their mother. She seems to enjoy the playful nature of her cubs and surrenders to the boys; she “gives herself up.”
Without explanation, Paps has left home. Ma has gone into a state of shock. She has not reported to work. She does little but smoke and sleep. The boys have been virtually abandoned. They are subsisting on crackers and jam and whatever else they can cull from the nearly bare pantry.
On the sixth day, Ma’s supervisor, Lina, calls to see what has happened. She does not receive a satisfactory explanation and comes over. Lina brings with her a bag of food, which the boys devour like wolves.
Lina gets Ma out of bed and treats her tenderly. She tucks wisps of hair behind her ears, holds Ma’s face in her hands, and gives her “soft kisses” all over. No one says a word, but it is clear that on some level, Ma has a life and interests that extend beyond the traditional roles of wife and mother.
The three boys have gone roaming. The boys squirm their way under an old man’s fence in a way reminiscent of Mr. McGregor and Peter Rabbit. Once inside, they do as much damage as they possibly can in a short amount of time: gobbling up vegetables and...
(The entire section is 967 words.)
The reality of life for this family and the financial struggles they endure are perhaps best realized in this chapter. Paps has found work as a security guard on the graveyard shift, but Ma already works nights and the boys are too young to be left alone. The only solution, Paps reasons, is to take the boys to work with him. Each weeknight, the boys pile into the car with their sleeping bags and camp out on the floor near the vending machines.
We do not know for how long this arrangement takes place, but it is clandestine and management would not approve of the boys’ being on the job site. One morning, Paps accidentally falls asleep. He is frantic to get the boys out of the office before the next shift comes in.
The family hustles out to the car but does not move quickly enough. The next guard sees the boys and the sleeping bags, and he immediately puts two and two together. Paps leaves the children in the car to go and talk to the man. The boys watch the two men argue but cannot hear what is being said; they see Paps gesture angrily and knock over the man’s coffee.
Paps gets into the car. Manny asks if he will be fired. Paps laughs a bitterly but does not respond. In anger and frustration and probably to hold back tears, their father pounds the dashboard with his fist in time to the music blaring from the radio for the entire ride home.
Once inside, Paps feels more trapped than ever. He laments to Ma that they will “never escape, never.” The hopelessness in his voice frightens the boys. Ma reprimands him, demanding that he not think that way.
The machismo that pervades some of Puerto Rican society is evident in this chapter. The family car has broken down and is beyond repair. To the delight of the family, Paps agrees it is time to purchase a new vehicle. He goes into town for this purpose while the rest of the family stays home. The boys eagerly watch the road all day until finally they see an unfamiliar truck come down the road and pull into their driveway.
The boys are thrilled and the neighborhood children are impressed. Paps beams as the boys delight over all the features of the truck and the other children look on in envy. Everyone is happy as can be...until Ma comes out to inspect.
She is furious. The truck is their only vehicle and must be used for all the family’s needs. Its bench seat can only hold three. There are neither enough room nor enough seat belts for them all. Paps cringes under her anger and says he will take the truck back and exchange it for something more suitable for them all. But, he...
(The entire section is 1100 words.)
Wasn’t No One to Stop This
The boys are out at dusk. They have drawn a three-sectioned chalk circle. They bounce a ball into each of the sections to someone else, imitating their father’s voice and chastisements as they do so.
As darkness settles, Manny begins talking to his brothers about white and black magic. Manny believes God is responsible for both types of magic, and one way to show his brothers this is by locating some poisonous mushrooms. They search and search; other children have gone home and they are alone in the night. Their desire to engage in mischief escalates and they decide to try to break out a window of a camper that belongs to their neighbors, the Grices. After a...
(The entire section is 1119 words.)