We the Animals, Justin Torres's first novel, was published in 2011. The main characters are the unnamed narrator, who is the youngest member of the family; his two brothers, Manny and Joel; and the boys' parents, Ma and Paps. The novel is structured as a series of episodes or vignettes rather than as one chronological narrative.
The boys live with their parents in upstate New York in what can only be described as a chaotic environment. While Ma and Paps are sometimes loving and fun, they can also be manic, unpredictable, and—especially in Paps's case—violent. Ma, in turn, suffers from manic depression and is often incapable of providing proper care for her brood. The three boys rely almost exclusively on one another, because they have learned that they cannot depend on their parents.
Paps, who is Puerto Rican, works as a security guard, while Ma, who is white, is employed at a brewery and works the overnight shift. The boys not only suffer abuse at the hands of their father; they are also forced to witness Paps inflicting injury on Ma on a regular basis. The trio must often fend for themselves when it comes to preparing meals, dining on items such as rice with soy sauce or instant stuffing.
Torres sketches several vignettes that demonstrate just how unstable and scary home life is for these children—including Paps crying over losing yet another job, Ma and Paps having sex in front of the boys during a game of hide-and-seek, Paps digging large holes in the backyard for no apparent reason, and Ma waking everyone up in the middle of the night to get dressed for school.
Near the end of the novel, it becomes apparent that the narrator is writing as an adult: he describes his adult life, his story of coming out, and how his parents institutionalized him when they found out he is gay. The narrator's brothers—with whom he was once so close—have also chosen to shun him. Although the novel ends on this grim note, the narrator has hope that he will one day be able to live an honest life, even if that means he will have to do so without his broken family's support.