SM | Philip Roth once wrote a book called The Professor of Desire that I distinctly recall was not very desirable. Similarly, in 1976, Bob Dylan claimed he had an album full of it. He didn’t. The message here is clear: don’t use desire in the title, just make sure to include desire in the production. Justin Torres’s debut novel We the Animals is full of desire, it’s in the pages and in the production, but not in the title. Smart kid (Torres is 31).
The three feral boys in We the Animals know what they want; they want it all and they want it now (sorry Freddie). Desire is their M.O. The narrator is six when the novel begins and sixteen when it ends (for those keeping score that is 112 in dog years). The runt of the litter, he is always telling us what he wants and more (the opening line is ‘We wanted more.’). He speaks for himself, and on behalf of his two older brothers, but he speaks for us readers also. When he says, ‘we were hungry,’ it prompts a nod of recognition because we too are hungry and nothing aids our literary digestion more than a sentence involving whipping up greens in the kitchen, am I right? Old Man neighbor catches the brothers in his veggie patch behaving like rabbits and herds them into kitchen and calls them names… ‘…all the while chopping those vegetables into smaller and smaller pieces on the table; what he was doing was this: making us a salad.’ Mmm, roughage.
The novel gets up close and personal on a hectic household in upstate New York. The parents, we learn, were young and dumb and started doing it before they even knew what they were doing. The fires of their loins raging unwittingly, they produced three kids, the first at least, conceived through osmosis; Ma was merely fourteen at the time. ‘No one had explained sex to Ma when she was at school,’ is how our narrator puts it and in all likelihood the parents did not stay in school long enough for that part of their education. The boys, Puerto Rican half-breeds, conjure a wolfpack and a black sheep version of The Three Stooges. There’s unrelenting fun in the first-person collective here. ‘We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight… We wanted more broken dishes, more shattered glass. We wanted more crashes.’ What the parents perceive as wearisome (‘I hate my life,’ Ma announces at one point) the reader finds mirthful, at least until the bitter end, a queer gamble on Torres’s part, and to these eyes, a wildly clichéd afterthought.
The shift involves a dropping of the first-person collective and is illustrated by many perceptive examples. Here’s his nifty take on the oldest brother’s change: ‘Lately, Manny looked out, looked up, looked into everyone and everything, not just us.’ What Torres desires most, it seems, is to be known as the best damn queer writer around, not just the best writer full stop. Two stories published around the time of We the Animals, featuring Van Santian hustlers, explicitly support this claim. Yet the results are uneven. The New Yorker story, Reverting to a wild state, is masterful, while Harper’s Starve a Rat suffers by firstly naming the charmless john Norwood, a slight — however inadvertent — on the unforgettable Charles Portis protagonist.
Both stories manage to strike a queer chord that renders We the Animals ultimately feeble, less organically gay. It’s as if PJ Harvey woke up wishing and hoping she had remade a subpar Dylan album (1998’s Is this Desire?). We the Animals attempts something similarly undesirable.