One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel
“That’s how you stay one of the boys,” says the narrator of Daniel Magariel’s debut, having slogged his way through a day at pre-school with a broken collarbone. Being one of the boys in One of the Boys means solidarity and grit. But it also means silence, complicity and lies. The father has won “the war” a bitter and bruising custody battle for his children, and he spirits them away from their home in Kansas to a new life in Albuquerque — away from their mother, “the Amalekite” and to freedom. Or so he says, at least.
The adventure palls. The boys begin to miss their home. And the father’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic, more and more sinister. That ever so-innocuous phrase “one of the boys” becomes a weapon that is used to divide brother from brother as the father succumbs to a druggy, violent paranoia. By the book’s end, the father is too strung out to go out for drugs himself, and resorts to pushing a wad of cash into his young son’s fist and forcing him to score a bagful of crack.
The book’s opening scene gives a hint as to the father’s devious tendency towards manipulation. He wants to have his cake and eat it — he wants sole custody of his two children, and he doesn’t want to pay a cent in alimony. His glee is almost palpable when he discovers that the mother has beaten the narrator with a telephone handset, and pressures him to take polaroids of the marks. But the marks are fading fast. The father drops hints that the older of the two kids should slap his brother, to freshen the marks up, to make them seem more dramatic. Here, the narrator steps in, eager to cement his position as “one of the boys,” to take a hit for the team.
In the mirror I remade my face with sorrow. This will get us free, I told myself. This was what they needed from me. With my right hand I slapped my right cheek. The left cheek with my left hand, then again, harder, alternating sides, following through a little further each time so that eventually my head turned not from the flinch but the blow. … I faced my father. “Now,” I said. “Take it now.”
My father kept clicking till the button stuck. After they developed, we chose five of the Polaroids to show Child Protective Services.
Written in a spare but elegant prose that seems the hallmark of MFA programmes these days, One of the Boys is a disturbing evocation, without even the slightest hint of sentimentality, of fiercely powerful relationship between a father and his young son, one where intense love sits alongside rage, paranoia, and an all-consuming need for control.
Granta kindly provided me with a review copy of One of the Boys.