Boys Will (Not) be Boys
Daniel Magariel’s debut is explosive and powerful
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Everyone loses something in war. Sometimes, the lucky ones — the winners — are able to recover pieces of those things they lost. The others might search their entire lives, finding nothing of comfort from the past. That’s the cruel nature of war; it’s relentlessly unforgiving.
Daniel Magariel’s sublimely affecting debut One of the Boys opens at the end of a “war,” the name the unnamed father uses to describe the custody battle following his tumultuous divorce, with the father taking his two sons from their mother in Kansas to their new home in New Mexico. The unnamed 12-year-old narrator and his (also unnamed) older brother feel victorious, basking in their new light as being “one of the boys.”
The new family begins playfully, with the father appearing child-like, joking and frequently citing the newfound happiness he feels while being around his sons. The lightness continues even after glimpses of darkness begin to appear. When the sons find their father using marijuana, the father’s response is casual:
“We are all entitled to one bad habit, aren’t we? Aren’t we? You guys have bad habits too.”
Soon after this initial glimpse into his father’s drug usage, the narrator describes a more concerning moment: “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. He was trying to act normal, make his kids breakfast before school. His scruff was long, hair matted. The capillaries in his eyes were exposed wires. He had not slept for days. He was still in last week’s clothes. At the table my brother and I ate cereal, watched him, exchanged smirks.” The perfect, new family isn’t so perfect anymore. And the boys realize this truth.
Magariel’s slim novel (under 180 pages) somehow, miraculously, manages to evolve slowly, building a haunting and tender experience that novels double One of the Boys’ size struggle to achieve.
The way Magariel pulls off this feat has to be accredited to the meticulous development of the young narrator. The boy’s initial naivety gives the father’s vileness time — and room — to grow. The father pleads to the narrator to trust him — to believe him and him alone. He says, ““You were my decision,” and he continues, “Did you know that? Your brother was an accident. He wasn’t planned like you. To be honest I didn’t even want him.” The father even crafts an elaborate lie, while trying to win his youngest son’s loyalty: “That time I took you fishing. I didn’t take your brother, did I? Know why? You’re special, that’s why. Your first cast you dropped the lure right on the fish’s head. I knew then, I mean I really knew, like really knew that you had magic in you, son. The same magic I have. You got it from me.” The boy falls into the father’s hands, but, as the narrator matures and begins to see the truth surrounding him, the boy’s kind spirit and loving heart works to overcome the father’s cruel “method of control,” especially after physical abuse, fully realized with knives and ropes, enters the picture. The narrator comes of age before our eyes.
While One of the Boys explores a number of themes, including deceit, the bonds of family, and and youthful naivety, masculinity is the issue Magariel seems most focused on dissecting. Magariel shows how toxic being “one of the boys” can be. To fit in, the narrator does terrible things. He hurts the ones he loves. He betrays his brother. He lets down his father. He turns his back on his mother. He fails everyone because he’s too focused on fitting into a mold of expectation. It’s when the narrator steps back and examines himself that he experiences his realization of truth: he’s becoming his own man, one that he’ll have to develop and shape.
The compactness and fragile familial bonds on display here will undoubtedly cause readers to compare Magariel’s debut to Justin Torres’ We the Animals. The two novels do certainly share a common terrain; however, Junot Diaz is the writer who I couldn’t help but think of as the closest kin to Magariel as I closed One of the Boys. There’s an unsparing feeling here that reminds me of Drown. There’s a call for perseverance that makes me think of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. There’s also an exploration of weakness and timidity that brings This is How You Lose Her back to my mind.
Regardless of comparisons, Daniel Magariel is a name to remember because what he’s delivered with his debut is an accomplished work of dazzling, lyrical prose combined with riveting storytelling. The result is explosive and powerful. Magariel demands our attention. He’s more than earned it with One of the Boys.