in review: One of the Boys

Daniel Magariel - One of the Boys
Daniel Magariel - One of the Boys

One of the Boys
by Daniel Magariel
Publication Date: March 14, 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Long latent addiction burns slow and silent at first, then intensifies, revealing itself in a wild, horrific crescendo. Daniel Magariel’s poetic and heartbreaking One of the Boys unfolds in the same manner, telling the story of two brothers whose lives are dictated entirely by their father’s cocaine habit and his manipulation of their love, loyalty, and masculinity to maintain it. Magariel studied under George Saunders and Mary Karr at Syracuse, and his simple, beautiful prose reflects their influence on handling ugly subject matters. He plumbs the depths of the fragile circus that a delusional, addict parent makes of his family in this short debut novel.

As the children of addicts, the brothers inhabit a harsh reality that feels just as real as those depicted in modern memoir. From the viewpoint of the younger brother, who is 12 years old, Magariel demonstrates how the proximity to addiction normalizes aberrant and bizarre behavior. After the father flees both rural Kansas and his marriage with his sons, he begins to disappear into his darkened room in their cheap apartment complex in New Mexico—first for days, then weeks, then months, until he becomes essentially nonfunctional. “He stared blankly into the frying pan, stirring the eggs, waiting for them to cook. He still had not realized the burner was off. Before, he’d been at the countertop buttering bread until the centers gave out… The capillaries in his eyes were exposed wires.” Magariel describes the gentle fraying of appearances and the humiliation that occurs as addiction slowly reveals itself to the outside world. When the father makes a rare appearance at one brother’s basketball game, his state becomes clear. “His sagging pants sagged lower. His shirt was wrinkled with only the front tucked in, as if he thought he could not be seen from the back. As if he imagined himself two-dimensional.”

At the heart of the story is the father’s manipulative use of the fiercely loyal love of his children and how he warps the ideas of masculinity and brotherhood to maintain his rapidly collapsing façade. He uses the book’s titular phrase, “One of the boys,” to coerce his sons into lying about their mother to protective services, moving across the country, changing their names, and staying home from school to do his job for him. He plays favorites and convinces both brothers that they’re his special lookouts when he wakes up paranoid in the night, whispering “Be my eyes.” He expects them to look out the window for 20 minutes for movement, a car, a person, anything. As the story reaches its violent climax, Magariel captures the central tension of the children of addicts: the powerless, nauseating mingling of hate and love that a child has for its parents.

The author’s choice of settings—rural Kansas and New Mexico—are fitting, as addiction continues to make its mark on lower-income families throughout the Southwest and middle America. He writes of their bleakness beautifully as the family drives south, escaping Kansas. “The rest of Oklahoma seems ominous. We pass oil fields, see pump jacks nodding like horse heads. At one point we come upon a stretch of white hundred-foot wind turbines, their blades turning with the patience of a rock. If not for their sleek geometry I might have thought they were prehistoric, that the wind generated from their rotations, and not the other way around.”

This story made me tear-up on an airplane and it lingered with me for weeks afterward. While it’s a deeply heavy read, Magariel’s writing and insight are well worth the emotional price of reading. In crafting the novel’s dark realism, however, the author does nothing to buffer the truth of addiction for the faint of heart.

—Sarah Jane Quillin