One of the Boys
By Daniel Magariel. Scribner, New York, 2017. 168 pages. $22
Our inclination toward the dystopian view is easy to understand in these unsettling times. A host of new, young writers — fixed on the world’s dysfunctions — are imaginatively projecting future scenarios. Some take a micro-view. In these works of fiction, a handful of people already mired in misfortune play out permutations on the worst-case scenario.
Daniel Magariel’s brief explosion of a novel, “One of the Boys,” gives us the agonizing failure of a family of four. An abusive husband takes his two sons from their home in Kansas to Albuquerque to live. The boys, charmed by their father and offended by the mother’s victim-like behavior, gladly embark on their new start. While still on the road, the father begins to succumb to his lust for crack cocaine. He is lost to his addiction even before their fresh start begins.
The narrator is the younger son, aged 12. He and his older brother are tight, but the father works, as narcissistic parents do, to turn the boys against each other. He succeeds in demonizing the mother, though she does not help matters. At one point in the novel when the boys need her the most, she betrays them and takes the increasingly violent man back.
None of the main characters call each other by their names. Perhaps the namelessness is meant to suggest a universality to this kind of family. There is no denying the story’s painful ring of truth. And there’s no mystery, despite a relentless suspense, where the story is headed. You
read for details, for the spot-on writing, for the next bad thing. The grip of dread is unyielding.
The boys go to school but fail to fit in. As time goes on, their father’s addiction removes him from family life. He once disappears into his bedroom for a month-long binge. The boys must fend for themselves. The older brother works long hours, steals food and gets in trouble with the law. His father nearly kills him during one beating. Police find him sleeping in a park.
The young narrator pacifies his father, warily straddles the minefields and slowly acquires an understanding of their dire situation. “Our dad was an act with a single end. His trajectory: down, down, down.” The boy sees his father “as an electronic device running out of charge.”
Magariel does a brilliant job capturing the father’s con-artist ways. When high he is magnetic and magnanimous — fully charged. When crashing he is paranoid, devious and violent. Magariel’s keenest talent is animating this family in all of its extreme moods.
In one climactic scene, the young boy, beaten badly, turns his face from his father. “I was afraid to remind him of last night,” he says. He was ashamed of how he looked, afraid to incite his father, even afraid to embarrass his father. He has a lot to overcome to save himself.
In Magariel’s micro-dystopia, there is sadly no need for imagination. What he does, instead, is write with excruciating accuracy the story of a family’s demise. But that’s not all. He understands extremes and can just as beautifully evoke love, hope and happiness.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in- Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org Read her American Society of Journalists and Authors’ award-winning blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.