I found this book by accident on Monday in Barnes and Noble, where I had stopped to kill time between the GRE and my acupuncture appointment. I didn’t intend to buy anything. I am moving soon, and even I can lose my taste for new books when I think of them only as extra poundage to be heaved expensively from one coast to another. But for this I made an exception. I passed it idly on the way to the bathroom and knew it was something special. I picked it up and started reading and barely stopped until I finished it very, very late on Monday night.
This book is hard to classify. It’s one of those books with all the outward trappings of a novel, including the disclaimer on the title page announcing that all the characters and events in the book are products of the author’s imagination, but it also has that certain je ne sais quoi that marks it as a memoir, in addition to certain obvious signs that mark it as a memoir, like references in its dedication and on its acknowledgements page. It is a novel in the manner of The Things They Carried – one whose purpose is in part to call into question the dubious distinctions between truth and fiction.
The first-person narrator of this novel is the unnamed youngest son in a family of three brothers. For most of the novel, he is seven years old, although it’s possible that some time passes in the middle of the novel without being remarked upon. The narration tends to speak in generalities about patterns – things that “would happen” over and over again rather than precise incidents narrated for their specific qualities. Normally this would be a turnoff for me, but it works in the case of this novel. In the last two chapters time leaps forward and the narrator is in his teens.
The narrator’s family is isolated and seems to have few connections in their rural upstate New York community. Their connections to one another, however, are fierce and visceral. The narrator’s parents work graveyard shifts and make vague references to their desperate desire to someday “escape this.” Neither parent graduated from high school. The title refers to the puppylike personalities of the three boys, but it also refers to the intense physicality of this family as a whole. The boys play rough and sometimes beat the crap out of each other, but they also snuggle under the covers in a shared bed on cold nights. The narrator’s parents fight verbally and physically, and the narration matches the child’s general sense of confusion about the extremely subtle differences between his parents’ violence and their sexual affection toward each other.
This is a novel about intimacy – but not about intimacy in the way that we most often use the word: as a euphemistic synonym for sexuality. There is plenty of sex in this book and it plays a role in this theme, but this is a book about real intimacy in every possible form that it takes in families. There is nothing euphemistic about this novel, although there is plenty of genuine subtlety as its language weaves its way around the real things it is describing. Not every family lives with the kind of intimacy that this novel is about. This is a family in which the parents do not hide their feelings or their bodies from the children. It is a family of violence, in which a father punches a ten year-old in the crotch. It’s a family that sometimes collapses giddily in a heap, hitting each other: “Joel kicked Paps’ thigh as hard as he could… I joined in, kicking for Paps but hitting Ma; it felt dull and mean and perfect. Then we were all three kicking and slapping at once, and they didn’t say a word, they didn’t even move; the only noise was the noise of skin and impact and breath… We hit and we kept on hitting; we were allowed to be what we were, frightened and vengeful – little animals, clawing at what we needed” (50-51).
For the first half of this novel, it felt to me more like a collection of linked stories than a novel. Later, though, I felt a poem-like intensity – that split-atom quality present in the best sonnets. The language is first-rate throughout. Some examples: the chaos of a forced swimming lesson (“How Paps had slipped away from us, how he looked on as we flailed and struggled, how I needed to escape Ma’s clutch and grip, how I let myself slide down and down, and when I opened my eyes what I discovered there: black-green murkiness, an underwater world, terror. I sank down for a long time, disoriented and writhing, and then suddenly I was swimming – kicking my legs and spreading my arms just like Paps had shown me a long time before, and rising up to the light and exploding into air, and then that first breath, sucking air all the way down into my lungs, and when I looked up the sky had never been so vaulted, so sparkling and magnificent” ); the moment when the narrator’s brothers convince him that a hole their father has dug in the backyard is a) a grave and b) magical, and he lies inside it to make a wish: (“I was squeamish about mud, and even though the day was muggy and hot, I thought the mud in the hole would be cold, and I was squeamish about that as well, and worms – I could see one worm, and I knew there would be more…It was a grave. It was my grave. Paps had dug my grave. Those were my first thoughts, and when I was fully horizontal, half submerged in puddle muck, stories about people being buried alive rushed into my mind – avalanches, mudslides, suffocation – but I had a wish, and I stayed to wish it” [80-81]). There is not a bad sentence in this novel, or even a neutral one.
But now, readers, I need to sit you down and have a serious talk with you. Because something really, really awful happens at the end of this novel, and when it does you will realize that Torres has been preparing you for it beginning on the very first page. This is what I mean when I say that this book is like a sonnet. Every word resonates against every other word. And you know how sonnets have “turns” – those moments after the third quatrain in Elizabethan sonnets or after the octave in Petrarchan sonnets when the lens of the poem shifts and changes direction? Well, this novel has one of those too – a terrible, ironic chapter about three-quarters of the way through the book when the novel’s darkness establishes itself and lays claim to the reader’s attention. I have seen this sort of thing happen many times in poetry and in plays and occasionally in short stories, and in parts of novels by Faulkner and Toni Morrison and Steinbeck – and granted this novel is short: only 128 pages – but this young punk of a kid Justin Torres seems to have sustained this kind of resonant use of language to foreshadow and echo and suggest and amplify on every single page of this book. And that is a very big deal. But, because of the terrible thing that happens at the end – and the many terrible ways Torres was trying to prepare us for it while we were too busy laughing and cringing and being idiots and assuming that no writer this young could be this good – it is also awful. This novel reminds us, both in its plot and in its remarkable structure, that the terrors of the world are not really as hidden as we think they are.
This novel is absolutely brilliant, but it is also a hard book to write about. It’s hard to write about because I want to glorify the beauty of the book without glorifying the terrible things that Torres manages to make beautiful – and I’m not sure I can separate the two. Obviously I know that this kind of superimposition of the beautiful over the ugly is the calling card of great art – but somehow, even though I was immediately drawn to this book in the bookstore, even though I sensed that it would be great, I wasn’t expecting great art to come to me in quite this package, and I am awed and humbled and grateful for the chance to share the world with this book.
I have a proposition for you: I’ve done the whole if-you-want-to-know-what-happens-you-have-to-read-the-book thing, and as a reviewer I think that’s a bit of a cheap shot. I don’t usually do that, but in this case it’s warranted – really. But here’s the deal. If you live even sort of close to me – like, anywhere in a 100-mile radius of Webster, Massachusetts, I will get up tomorrow morning and bring you my copy of this book. And you can read it and we can talk about it.
I’m totally serious. Just say the word and I’ll show up on your doorstep with the book. You provide the coffee.