WE THE ANIMALS, by Justin Torres. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 128 pp., $18.
Less than 130 pages in length, this slender debut novel -- novella, really -- packs an outsized wallop; it's the skinny kid who surprises you with his intense, frenzied strength and sheer nerve. You pick up the book expecting it to occupy a couple hours of your time and find that its images and tactile prose linger with you days after.
The narrator of Justin Torres' "We the Animals" is a young boy raised with two older brothers, Manny and Joel, in a small, dead-end town, never named. "Paps" is Puerto Rican, and "Ma" is white, from Brooklyn; they're young, passionate and struggling. Ma works the night shift at a brewery, a "confused goose of a woman" who "would wake randomly, mixed up, mistaking one day for another, one hour for the next, order us to brush our teeth and get into PJs and lie in bed in the middle of the day; or when we came into the kitchen in the morning, half asleep, she'd be pulling a meat loaf out of the oven, saying 'What is wrong with you boys? I been calling and calling for dinner.' " The boys, who love her fiercely and protectively, accommodate: "We went along with whatever she came up with; we lived in dreamtime."
Paps is fitfully employed and disappears for stretches of time, but when he's home, his virile presence dominates: cooking and drinking, blaring Tito Puente from the stereo, striking Ma or seducing her, bathing the boys or spanking them with a leather belt. "Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, someplace our Paps was taking us with all this," the narrator says of the ritual-like punishment. "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."
Meanwhile, the boys run wild, all raw physicality, "a tribe" -- trampling a neighbor's garden, fighting one another "kennel style," rolling on the floor in a tickle pile or "blowing raspberries onto [Ma's] belly." Here they are dancing to Paps' mambo music in the kitchen: "We got low on our knees, clenched our fists, and stretched our arms out on our sides; we shook our shoulders and threw our heads back, wild and loose and free." Few books capture the sensual experience of childhood as viscerally.
Of course, it is no ordinary childhood. Though "We the Animals" has a spare, almost allegorical quality -- less a narrative than a series of brief episodes that unfold in Ma's "dreamtime" -- it reminded me in some ways of Jeannette Walls' memoir, "The Glass Castle," which evoked both the terror and magic of growing up in thrall to charismatic, unstable parents.
As this slim volume draws to a close, the narrator will begin to discover himself -- his natural intelligence, his sexual desire for men -- but separation from his hothouse family has a steep price. I found the denouement perhaps too abrupt and enigmatic, but what stays with me are the terrible beauty and life force in Torres' primal tale.