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First Notable of 2012–“We the Animals”

The 2012 American Library Association Notable Books List was announced last Sunday–and that made January 22 a Recognized Holiday at my house. I’ve got several notables checked out, a few more on hold, and I have finished my first–“We the Animals” by Justin Torres.

After last year’s rants about LONG books dominating the list, I can ease up this year. In fact, “We the Animals” is only 128 pages.

It’s a series of short stories told by the youngest of three brothers in a contemporary family. Their father is Puerto Rican, and their mom is anglo, both from Brooklyn originally, although the family lives now in upstate New York.

The stories reminded me of Andre Dubus III’s “Townie” in their mix of profound family chaos, fierce love, and edginess.

In one story, the boy is alone left too long at a Niagara Falls museum. To keep himself occupied, he ends up dancing in front of a film that nobody else is viewing, enjoying the movement and the lights on his body. He realizes that his dad has finally returned, and has been watching him, perhaps for some time. His dad realizes how “pretty” his son is. That begins the movement toward the book’s end, as the young man realizes he’s gay, and engineers his first sexual encounter.

When I finished this, I noted that I felt like I was either in the presence of genius, or needed a shower. The scenes in this book so often put the narrator and his brothers in situations that were dirty or grimy or slightly dangerous or mean. And yet there remained that sense of love and solidarity. How did Torres manage that?

Torres writes in a deceptively simple way that seems just to describe, but that also sets a tone.

I will recommend this to people who appreciate spare writing, who seek varieties of experiences, and who can tolerate edginess. I’ll also bring it to the attention of book groups.

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