This is an ARC review of Daniel Magariel’s One of the Boys, which releases March 14, 2017.
*Special thanks to Scribner for allowing us to review ahead of publication.
This review contains spoilers and quotes from the book
One father’s will to win his sons’ alliance onsets the frantic and unruly awakening depicted in Daniel Magariel‘s One of the Boys. In the wake of his own sinister excitement to claim ownership over his boys, mere casualties of the war—a choice term used to describe his callous custody battle and divorce from their mother—he and his children make a break from Kansas for the panorama of a bleak New Mexican town. It is a landscape drawn with false dreams, pulled back curtains, and strange fumes penetrating closed doors.
Two brothers—one a juvenile of only twelve, the other an assuring high school athlete—struggle to come to grips with the stark reality they’ve conceived for themselves after betraying their mother at their father’s profit, and seemingly their own as well. The younger of the two becomes his father’s dubious confidant, “his eyes” and the unlikely pallbearer of his father’s dirty secrets. His older brother, on the other hand, is overcome with the weight of salvaging what’s left of this decaying family unit to no avail.
As Magariel’s tour de force advances, the reader discerns that this is no ordinary family dynamic we’re witnessing here. In one acrid scene after the other, One of the Boys parades the same spiritual undertakings as Hunter S. Thompson or that of Arthur Miller‘s Death of a Salesman, continuously transmuting itself into what appears to be a head-on collision. Or worse. And before you know it, there it is again: the ghost of Willy Lowman.
I don’t know why it is, but there’s something about the father that reminds me so much of Willy. It’s an endearing comparison when you think about it. Both men grapple with keeping their rank in the household’s breadwinner and patriarch. Much like Willy, the father in Magariel’s book is haunted by demons he’s created for himself. Both fathers are invalids in their own right, sharing similar atrocities and disappointments; damaged by their own embarrassment at not being able to provide for their families. Maybe I’m reaching with this comparison, but I think it’s a good reach no less.
While much, if not all of this story, is observed from the viewpoint of his twelve-year-old son, I felt the father’s inner-damnation is what really moved the story along. He is such a crippled, childlike character, yet his motives are not the easiest to comprehend.
I understood his resentment towards his ex-wife for divorcing him, but not his obliviousness to his part in their breakdown. Then it hit me: one of the biggest themes of this book is treason, a crime punishable by death. The father makes numerous threats to his ex-wife, his children and a number of other characters who he believes are plotting against him. He fears disappointment and loneliness, so it only made sense that he would go to whatever extremes it took to make his children, and all those around him, obedient.
We witness this in a passage from Chapter 8 when the father believes his oldest son is conspiring with their mother—the Amalekite. In a state of furor and panic, he turns to his youngest son for an act of vengeance that is totally out of the ordinary, even for him:
“In medieval times your brother would have been drawn and quarterted. You know what that means? The king would have tied his limbs to horses and ripped him to pieces. We need something that’ll bring him back in line. Something he’ll never forget.”
He was looking to me for the answer. I was afraid of what would happen if I did not give him what he wanted, but also of what would happen if I gave him what he was asking.
— (Chapter 8, One of the Boys)
The examination of loyalty is not the only peculiar thing to be noted in this book. Sexuality, though sparse in nature, is another rough concept that’s explored. The boys have little to no positive relationships with women, only men (well, sort of). Other than an ostensibly forgettable scene the youngest has with a neighborhood girl, I was beginning to think these boys were sexually ambiguous characters. Sadly, literature as left its heteronormative imprint on male characters.
But what I appreciate about Magariel’s lineup is that the boys have no sexual identity. There are hardly any signifiers in this book that suggest these boys are (or will grow up) to be straight, and I found that aspect refreshing as well. Nonetheless, I think it was a good move on Magariel’s part to keep those identities hidden. I can only imagine the father’s reaction to learning one of his sons is gay when he tries so hard to make into men.
Overall, One of the Boys is untidy and doubtful and made all the more tremendous because of it.