One Of The Boys
by Daniel Magariel
Published 2017 by Scribner
$22.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1501156168
By Noah Sanders
In Daniel Magariel’s debut novel, One of the Boys, childhood is a bootcamp. The soldiers: two unnamed boys whisked away from their mother to New Mexico by their abusive, drug-addicted father. The steel-fisted drill sergeant, the father, imposes a strict set of rules and punishments, effectively drafting his own children into a malignant fraternal order of three. What’s sold to the kids as an adventure to start a life anew in a foreign land, quickly devolves into a somber fight for survival, as the father’s drug use and physical attacks escalate. Child abuse is a well-worn subject in literature, but Magariel manages, with brevity and stark beauty, to highlight anew the tenuous wants and needs that hold a family group together, no matter how broken. One of the Boys is, at its pitch-black core, a book about the power of parental love; of what it gives, what we’ll do to possess it, and the startling effects it has when it is turned against us.
There are no punches pulled in Magariel’s book. This is a story that starts dark and quickly slides into claustrophobic horror, punctuated by belt-whippings and the chemical reek of crack smoke. Our unnamed narrator, a middle school kid, and his high-schooler brother, have voluntarily lied to the authorities about their mother’s alleged pedophilia, and now live in a musty apartment complex in New Mexico with their sad, monster of a father. To start, both kids alternatively love and fear their father, and Magariel excels at showcasing the reasons behind both emotions. The father has painted their exodus from Kansas as a game, a mission in a war against their mother, with those who follow along allowed the greatest reward: to be “one of the boys,” This is childhood as gang initiation, the father extorting loyalty through intense physical abuse coupled with manipulation of the kids against each other. Magariel understands the supposed trust a child needs from their parent, and the father figure in One of the Boys uses it as a weapon, aimed at culling any sort of revolution.
The author furthers the fraternal feeling of the relationship between the two boys and their father. A rough-hewn form of hazing and ritual is constructed by the father, its intent to break them down, to sickly bond the two kids to each other and, most importantly, to their father. Things go poorly for the kids—the father wades deeper into drugs, his absence, and the onset of growing up, allowing the kids the freedom of mind to contemplate escape. Magariel creates a fascinating dichotomy: as the father falls apart, the kids must weigh their bettered chances at freedom against their inherent familial need to take care of him. The big decisions become theirs, the responsibilities of an adult, suddenly thrust into their hands. This is a book about family, though, and the author doesn’t allow the reader to forget, good or bad, our parents pass a little something along to all of us. As the father begins to suspect an escape, the narrator turns the manipulative tricks taught to him against his teacher, his father, exploiting his weaknesses to better their chances at freedom.
As bleak as the book gets, Magariel doesn’t let it slip into abject horror, allowing the boys some sense of levity, even during the worst of times. The narrator and his older brother form a bond under the dictator-like rulings of their father, manipulation or not. When the situation grows the most unbearable, the two turn towards each other, the author allowing a single scene of undiluted, child-like joy, and together, for each other, they’ll try and find a way out. The epilogue of the book pulls the reader back to the car ride on the way to New Mexico. In context, the scene seems bucolic, a family road trip to a new place full of inside jokes and good-hearted teasing. The boys are excited, ready for an adventure with dear old dad, the future, horrible as it will be, still full of possibility. “We are kids again,” Magariel writes, “just like he promised.” No matter how badly that promise will be broken, for a moment, Magariel shows us just how badly these characters, and in turn the readers, want to trust their parents, how much they want them, no matter the cost, to help shepherd them down the paths of their lives.