Teenage brothers on the run with an addict father
One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel review: an emotional tale
Daniel Magariel: creates characters who are simultaneously heroic and credible. Photograph: Justine Magariel
One of the Boys
For every Superdad in fiction, such as Atticus Finch or Bob Cratchit, there are fathers at the other end of the scale who hardly deserve the title. Michael Henchard in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge sells his daughter when he’s drunk. Jack Torrance in The Shining tries to kill his son. Pap Finn is only interested in the unfortunate Huck when he can use him to beg for money to feed his alcoholism. David Melrose in Edward St Aubyn’s searing Never Mind series is a master of abuse, both physical and psychological, the type of man who knows that his cruelty to his wife and children works “only if he alternated it with displays of concern and elaborate apologies for his destructive nature”.
The father in Daniel Magariel’s debut novel, One of the Boys, has a similar parenting style, teasing his two teenage sons with the promise of affection and adventure that swings viciously to violence and neglect. Magariel’s short novel, almost a novella, tells the story of two unnamed brothers who are uprooted from their Kansas home and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, by their highly volatile father. One of the first things dear old Dad does after relocating is to get drunk in a bar and convince his sons that they should change their surname to Spanish. Alarm bells ring.
Or rather, ring louder. We already know the pernicious lengths the youngest son was asked to go to by his father in his bid to secure custody. A dramatic opening scene in a basement sees the 11-year-old narrator punch himself in the face while his father and brother watch, urging him to make it look real for the authorities. Coupled with an allegation of sexual abuse, this causes the mother to lose custody. The three “boys” then hit the road. “The boys” is a recurring term used by the father to guilt-trip his sons throughout the novel. Any hint of conscience or rebellion from either of them and Dad wields his psychological power by saying: “I thought you were one of the boys.”
This power turns physical shortly after the manic optimism of their adventure gives way to the realities of the father’s drug addiction. A new refrain, the spine-chilling “be my eyes”, sets the tone in their shoddy apartment, where the paranoid father locks himself and his crack pipe away for weeks on end, only to emerge in various states of comedown.
The candid simplicity of the young adult narrator’s voice brings pathos: “He’d thinned – his moustache too big for his face. His pants didn’t fit him any more. He had to hold them up by the waistband. The frays of his cuffs dragged across the carpet like uprooted plants.”
The narrator and his brother adjust accordingly: “He was an electronic device running out of charge. We kept our distance.”
As the older brother forgoes his schooling and a promising basketball career in order to support the family, the young narrator is left to fend for himself in a world that is scarily lacking a positive adult presence. Themes of addiction, masculinity, parental neglect and lost innocence are brought to life by Magariel, who studied at Columbia University and received his MFA from Syracuse University. Choice details not only bring the addict to life – “The capillaries in his eyes were exposed wires” – but also the wider landscape of the novel: “Out on the porch I watched the city swell before the sunset. Isolated rainstorms looked like pencil scratches in the distance.”
Not everything is seamless in this debut. There is a tendency to guide the reader, especially at the beginning. Too many leading attributors around the dialogue grate initially, though they peter out once the characters have been introduced and the novel finds its flow. A questionable epilogue adds little, either to plot or atmosphere, and the pace of the action is sometimes confusingly fast as the boys settle into their new lives in Albuquerque.
It is a tempo that perhaps reflects the erratic behaviour of the father, who grows ever more odious as the novel progresses. Magariel’s portrayal of the mother is also commendable. There are no easy binaries when it comes to these parents. The narrator misses his mother, but he also hates her because she has failed to protect her sons from their father. Yet a chance of reunion at airport arrivals poignantly shows the thin line between love and hate: “I could hardly contain my fear, uncertainty, hope. My anticipation warped faces to look like my mother’s.”
Magariel packs an impressive amount of emotion into his short book. Readers will root for the brothers, whose love for each other comes across on the page as simultaneously heroic and credible. The reality of their situation is stark: “She was gullible and weak, and she couldn’t protect us. But we had no other options. Our dad was an act with a single end.”