Daniel Magariel’s debut novel*, One of the Boys, is not a happy clappy book. It features child abuse (physical, rather than sexual), drug addiction and parental betrayal. It’s grim, confronting and tragic. If escapist fiction lives on one side of the spectrum than One of the Boys owns a hovel on the opposite end of spectrum-town. As dark as this book it avoids becoming misery porn by providing a raw but compassionate portrayal of a man, a father, in decline.
Following a bitter divorce a father – no character is named – decides to take custody (legal or otherwise) of his two teenage sons. Leaving Kansas they drive, almost non-stop, to Albuquerque. If the father is to be believed this mad rush embodies a desire to press a reset button on their lives without the interference of their weak-willed mother. On arrival in Albuquerque the boys go to the local public school, make friends and show off their prodigious basketball talents. Dad, on the other hand, never seems to leave the house or for that matter his room. He says it’s because he’s taking care of an important client but his moods – manic and joyous, dark and violent – tell another story.
A clear focus of the novel is how the brothers deal with their father’s mood and increasing paranoia. It’s harrowing stuff, especially when the father attempts to turn the brothers against each other. But as much as this is a book about survival in impossible circumstances, it’s also about a son trying to understand why and how his father became this drug addicted, violent, woman-hating human being. The novel generates it’s power and depth not from scenes of horrible abuse – though they are certainly present and difficult to read – but by refusing to cast the father – and to a lesser extent the mother – as villains. The picture that is ultimately drawn with great care by Magariel is of a man who dearly loves his children but whose love has been twisted and distorted by the burden of responsibility and drugs. This is evidenced in the father’s misguided attempts to justify his actions and engender loyalty in his youngest boy:
“You were my decision,” he started. “Did you know that? Your brother was an accident. He wasn’t planned like you. To be honest I didn’t even want him. I should have guessed how he’d turn out. But as soon as he was born, I knew we needed a second child.” He looked up at me. “Do you understand what I’m driving at? You wouldn’t exist without me. I thought you up. Trippy, right? Far out. That’s what bonds us together. That’s the glue, boy. Some cultures might even believe that you owe me your life, wouldn’t you say?””
More than the physical abuse it’s moments like these that I found the most gut-wrenching.
Thematically this is a novel that questions whether some people are not suited to be parents, highlights the toxic nature of certain types of masculinity and reinforces our view that society needs a better way of dealing with drug addiction. But for me One of the Boys derives its power and depth from its honest exploration of corrupted parental love that never points a finger of blame.
* It’s technically a novella but who am I to quibble over a few thousand words.