If the goal of a fiction writer is to say much with few words, Daniel Magariel’s debut novel, One of the Boys, is a near perfect encapsulation of this pursuit. In 165 brisk pages, Magariel tells the heart wrenching journey of a deeply fractured family with impeccable command. It’s the sort of novel that you will start and finish in one sitting, not simply for its slim length, but because it will sink its teeth into you and never let up until its final sentence draws blood, chipping away at your soul. One of the Boys is an astounding debut, its haunted pages will linger in your mind long after it lets you catch your breath.
Narrated by a nameless 12-year-old boy, One of the Boys revolves around his and his brother’s relationship with their profoundly complex father, a man who is almost as charming and lovable as he is volatile and loathsome. The war is over — the term used by their father to describe the divorce — and their father relocates them from Kansas to New Mexico for a fresh start.
The boys’ mother is depicted by their father as a monster, a woman who quickly handed them off to their father after they were born. She was repulsed by the mere sight of them, according to their father.
Only Magariel quickly makes us realize that the situation is far more complicated than it seems. Their father, a deceptively charismatic manipulator, often describes himself as a “kid,” and the troubling aspect of that declaration is only the beginning of his dubious identity.
One of the Boys is a stark tale of the abuse that stems from the desperation of drug addiction and a psyche that has never quite matured past that of a child. In New Mexico, the boys settle into life, but soon learn that their father, an obsessively private man, is hooked beyond control, fastened to his vices so tightly that he is unable to keep his adolescent sons from prematurely losing their innocence.
In clean, terse prose, Magariel conveys childhood in a way that is increasingly rare in adult fiction. The boys aren’t child prodigies and the narration steadfastly avoids dipping into sentimentality.
As the narrative progresses, their father’s descent into darkness is put on display in harrowing fashion. The boys grapple with the question: How long can they stay “one of the boys” before they cut their losses — no matter the number of assurances and reassurances their father has given them — and accept that he may never be the father they need him to be? How long can love keep them from doing what’s best?
While there’s comic relief (albeit extremely dark humor), the novel examines how long the youthful spirit can persist until the heart breaks. This isn’t a tale for the easily disturbed, or anyone looking for any semblance of a happy story, but it offers one of the most chilling chronicles of strained familial relationships in quite some time. For that, Magariel’s novel is a vital book, one that opens the shutters on a subject that is often hard to discuss and let’s you peer inside a home mid-crumble.
One of the Boys is a whirlwind of sadness, but Magariel’s yarn is spun with such exceptional care and vibrancy that it’s impossible not to be touched, and ultimately moved by this stunning debut.