The Ghettoesque Stylings of Justin Torres’ We, the Animals

I always approach any new book written by a Latinx writer and acclaimed by the predominantly white body of reviewers with trepidation.  As you can imagine this anxiety occurs often considering the scarcity of reviewers actually knowledgeable of Latinx literature and the inordinate power of the mainstream critical mass to dictate tastes and trends.  And almost without fail, I’m disappointed.  Not only with the book, but also the reviewers, the writer, and the whole hot mess that is publishing today.  Such was the case with Justin Torres’ “novel,” We, the Animals.”

What we have with this book is a closeted memoir.  Torres seems to want to write a coming of age/coming out memoir with this book.  That it was marketed as a “novel” probably had more to do with legal issues over releases and the desire of his handlers to sell Torres as a novelist than contemporary novelistic aesthetics.  Even in this postmodernist world, where “everything goes” in literary production, this narrative screams for the structural depth, narrative coherence, density and expansion that any reader expects from a novel, especially one based on strong autobiographical material.  The core of this narrative—Torres’ grappling with his sexual identity—is essentially buried through roughly the first one hundred pages.   Actually, not a good writing strategy for any long narrative, be it memoir or novel.

After reading various vignettes about his family, each one increasing in dysfunctional angst, we are thrown into the coming out section of the book for the last three chapters.  As readers, we are expected to make sense out of Torres’ hurried attempt to tie all the loose ends.   Justin Torres is a gifted stylist and strong at the sentence level, but he is unable to bring it all together at the end.   This is one case where less was not more.   Given the opportunity to write a novel, he could have developed this thread much more meticulously and woven the earlier parts better.   At any rate, the powers that be have branded it a novel.  I wish that they had released it as a memoir instead, because at least Torres’ dysfunctional family and personal issues, as heartbreaking and poignant as they are, could be read as one individual’s story rather than becoming yet another part of the ghettoesque fictional legacy that negatively universalizes and marks the Latino experience in the United States.

The enthralled remarks of many reviewers who blurbed this book focus on language.  Torres has a sparse, elliptical, lyrical style that captivates by absence and suggestion.  Daniel Alarcón is right to mention that every page “sings” because each one is imbued with raw, poetic intensity.   Alarcón continues to write that “every scene startles.”  That statement, however, I have to question.  It would not startle anyone who consistently reads Latinx literature today to read a scene where a father punches a young son in the face and crotch.  A novel that contains oversexed “characters,” especially a “dark and Afroed” Puerto Rican man with a “stout, fleshy dick” who the narrator compares to an animal.  In fact, the entire family is depicted often—consider the title—using animal metaphors.  Not surprising some of the words and phrases used by reviewers to describe this novel are: “feral,” “ferocious,” “wilderness,” “between the human and the animal,” “snatches the reader by the scruff of the heart,” “ravished,” “savage,” and so on.   Is this a matter of a bunch of excellent writers riffing blurbs on the animal theme?  Perhaps.  But who offered them this trope as a fulcrum?  The author.  Who also utilizes an overused literary template that, besides containing the ever-present abusive, sporadically absent, sucio father, includes, inevitably, a barrio environment full of violence, sex, and drugs.

Following Junot Diaz’s contribution to the ghetto genre, Justin Torres transports the barrio from the customary urban area to someplace seemingly different.  He takes the animals out of the urban jungle and transfers them to “hillbilly country,” but of course keeping them locked in that same old cage called poverty.   The inescapable oppression of that impoverished life is also a given in this exhausted story.  There’s never any way out.  It’s all about epic failure.   The characters never seem to find any answers, any agency or transformative power.   Apparently, these Latina/o writers are intent on dragging Latino characters through a twenty-first century version of naturalism.  By the end, after a mental breakdown seemingly over his family finding his journal full of his sexual fantasies, the narrator finds himself institutionalized, now sleeping with “animals in cages and in dens.”

Piri Thomas constructed a writing career based on this type of story. But Thomas’ memoir, Down These Mean Streets, was mostly authentic and honest, and forty-six years ago it was a new and fresh.  He was writing about his hard life.  None of the Latino writers writing this ghetto or barrio genre today can claim the life Thomas lived.  They’re college educated.  They may have come from working class backgrounds but they did not serve any time in jail, did not fight in gangs, get shot up, or almost die from hard drugs.  And if they did, Thomas already wrote about those topics with power and authenticity.   So, almost a half of century after Thomas’ memoir, can’t we move on to telling different stories about our communities?  Can’t we shift our creative gaze somewhere else? For sure, the barrio needs to be written, but not always from this repressive, limited and limiting tired perspective.

It is disgraceful and disturbing that this barrio/ghetto template still survives today in its newer, insidious forms.  At one point, referring to their suffocating socioeconomic condition, the narrator’s father says, “Nobody’s ever escaping this.”  I worry that Latinx writers will not be able to escape from the present publishing environment and the cage it has built for us.  I worry that Latinx writers cannot seem to transcend this concrete ceiling, mainly because the current publishing machinery feeds and privileges this toxic crap.  The literati apparently still love to fetishize the Latinx experience as exotica, and the writers who unleash these urban fantasies are thrown the scrapes of praise as they haunch in their cages scribbling away.  That this phenomenon extends to all forms of cultural production, including films, videos, music, etc., continues to be a source of anxiety for me and it should be to every thinking person in our communities.

Image: Ghetto4Life, Banksy.

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