'One Of The Boys' Tells The Story Of A Corrosive Father-Son Relationship
I was in the mood for reading "lite" this week. It was a nice fleeting thought. Instead, I took a detour because I got curious about Daniel Magariel's slim debut novel, One of the Boys, which is adorned with raves from writers who mostly don't generate such blurbs.
I found myself reading the novel in one still afternoon. A slim, deeply affecting and brutal story, One of the Boys is about the fierce power of a father-son relationship, which, in these pages, all but grinds a young boy to a pulp.
The unnamed narrator of One of the Boys is 12 years old. His parents are recently divorced, and he and his older brother have sided with their charismatic father against their mother.
The first scene here clues us in to both the father's manipulative personality and to our young narrator's terror of being left out, of being found unworthy to be "one of the boys." The father finds out his ex-wife has accidentally struck our narrator with a telephone, and he pressures the boy to pose for Polaroids.
The father figures he can wangle out of spousal support and gain sole custody of his sons if his ex-wife is deemed abusive. He tells his sons they'll then be able to leave their old life in Kansas and drive off to start afresh in Albuquerque, N.M. — a place the father has randomly fixated on.
But there's a hitch: The red marks on the boy's face are fading too fast. So the sly father hints that his older son should slap his brother. That's when our young narrator, the miniature caretaker of this broken family, bravely takes charge. Here's the boy's account of what happens next:
"Wait," I said
"What?" my father said.
In the mirror I remade my face with sorrow. This will get us free, I told myself. This was what they needed from me. With my right hand I slapped my right cheek. The left cheek with my left hand, then again, harder, alternating sides, following through a little further each time so that eventually my head turned not from the flinch but the blow. ... I faced my father. "Now," I said. "Take it now. ...."
My father kept clicking till the button stuck. After they developed, we chose five of the Polaroids to show Child Protective Services.
Out in Albuquerque, the boys and their father move into an anonymous apartment development. The boys enroll in school; the dad works long-distance as a financial adviser — that is, on those days when he bothers to work. As our narrator later says, "Our dad was an act with a single end. His trajectory: down, down, down."
It doesn't take long for the boys to discover the white powder that's pulling their father down. In fact, the boys like it better when dad is on a binge because he's docile. Other times, he rages, bloodies his sons with his belt buckle and becomes increasingly distrustful.
Here's our narrator's description, towards the end of the novel, of the family's sun-baked apartment redecorated in paranoid style:
The blinds stayed drawn. ... The folding room screens that once separated my father's office from the living room now blockaded the glass porch door. For a while he'd moved a pizza box from window to window to keep the light out.
Why, you may well ask, would any reader want to enter this disturbed space? You hear the answer in those passages I've already quoted from One of the Boys. There's nothing fake or forced in Magariel's writing; he even pulls off the trick of relying on a 12-year-old narrator without pandering to sentimentality or wise-child syndrome.
Those are some of the pitfalls Magariel avoids; what he achieves is a novel that makes readers feel what it would be like to live on high alert all the time; to be at the mercy of a father's addictions, crackpot whims and surges of violence. He also makes us feel what it would be like to still love such a father.
The subject of One of the Boys is archetypal, but Magariel's novel depicts it with the power of stark revelation. We cannot turn away.
Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.