Beasts of the Northern Wild

Justin Torres’ debut novel, “We the Animals,” chronicles the childhood of three boys on the prowl in upstate New York.

Joseph Kleinschmidt

Who: Justin Torres

What: Reading and Q&A

When: 4 p.m., Friday

Where: Walter Library, Arthur Upson Room (Room 102),  117 Pleasant St. SE,

Cost: Free


No language obscures the lucid power Justin Torres wields in his debut novel, “We the Animals.” The young “animals” include Manny, Joel and an unidentified narrator, who wildly mocks strangers and begs for attention.

The three boys share one voice for much of the slim 128-page book, a collective howl in defiance of everyone within their sights. Torres paints a semi-autobiographical sketch with his novel, an episodic ode to boyhood.

“We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more,” Torres wrote, establishing a first-person plural perspective early on.

The 2011 book launched Torres into the literary spotlight, garnering accolades from fellow authors Paul Harding and Dorothy Allison. The prose of “We the Animals” bounces between the minimalist language Raymond Carver popularized and a lyrical beat derived from Torres’ writing process.

“I read aloud a lot,” he said. “All the time. Obsessively. Oftentimes before I even write it down, I will sort of talk to myself and sort of memorize something and see how it sounds.”

Set in rural upstate New York, “We the Animals” follows the trio of brothers growing up amid the chaotic relationship between their parents, referred to as “Ma” and “Paps.”

“We the Animals” uses its compact length and rhythmic language to break free of a convention Torres sees as well-worn.

“I wanted to go against the ‘coming-of-age’ genre,” Torres said. “I wanted to do something a little bit different that wasn’t quite about one character, the individual identity of a character coming into awareness gradually over time.”

Encouraged by an instructor from a writing class he took with a friend in New York, Torres eventually landed in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He first developed “We the Animals” through the rigor of a graduate program, far removed from his humble upbringing.

“When I got there, I wasn’t coming from anywhere — I was a [expletive] college drop-out,” he said. “I had to race to come up with my own set of beliefs. I was forced to articulate the way that I believe fiction should work.”

Snapshots in “We the Animals” mirror the author’s own experiences coming to terms with his sexual identity and mixed-race heritage, growing up with a Puerto Rican father and a white mother. Labels make Torres’ coming-of-age novel popular in high schools, but the book packs fewer prescriptions and more punches. On his visits to schools, he emphasizes the same candidness in conversation with students.

“It might not be the first time that they’ve met a writer, but it’s the first time they’ve met a writer who talks like they talk,” Torres said. “I’m not particularly interested in being an elitist. I try to be frank and honest.”

That visceral aesthetic so palpable in “We the Animals” initially clashed with the literary circles he finds himself in now as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, where he’s working on a new book.

“I’m running in these circles that are so far removed from the world that I grew up in — like so far removed,” Torres said. “It’s weird. It’s definitely weird.”