By Houman Barekat.
Daniel Magariel, One of the Boys (Granta, 2017).
Daniel Magariel’s accomplished debut novel begins with two boys – the narrator and his brother – conspiring with their father to shop their mother to social services with fabricated allegations of physical and sexual violence. The father wins custody and the three of them start a new life together in New Mexico. Though the brothers are well aware of his eccentricity – they joke about him behind his back, mocking the solemn machismo of his corny pep-talks – they are nevertheless hopelessly in his thrall. When it gradually dawns on them that he has been hiding a serious and debilitating drug habit, their memories of their parents’ rows begin to make retrospective sense. His behaviour becomes progressively more controlling and violent as the boys plot their escape.
Father tells son, as he beats him, that the son is to blame for having driven him to it; later, in a moment of regret, he fraudulently declares “I would never hurt you.” These are, of course, textbook techniques of emotional manipulation, and Magariel’s narration is appropriately banal in its grim matter-of-factness. Probably the most disturbing passage in the book is a flashback scene in which the boys arrange, with cold meticulousness, to attack their mother – physically and verbally – in order to endear themselves to their father:
‘We decide to ambush her when she comes out of their bedroom. We tie sewing thread at ankle height around the banister outside their door, Scotch tape it to the wall. We place Hot Wheels on each stair step in case she escapes the trip wire…. Then we will berate her, tell her that she is a bad wife, a shitty mom…’
In one particularly memorable vignette, the self-styled patriarch unwittingly allows his testicles to pop out from his shorts whilst he is holding court on a living room sofa in front of his sons, his new lover and her mother. Oblivious as to why his authority has been punctured, but aware from the smirks and giggles that something isn’t quite right, he thunders in impotent rage. The blend of slapstick and menace is deliciously uncomfortable: the reader cannot quite revel in his humiliation, for fear of its consequences.
A degree of embellishment – and contrast – comes in the form of occasional poignant recollections of halcyon early childhood. These passages are suffused with tenderness: the narrator, for example, recalling the brothers playing with their father, clambering over him as he played dead or pretended to be an animal. Elsewhere, he remembers when the boys were each bought a dreamcatcher: ‘My brother, unsure how they worked, slept with his on his face that first night. He’d slipped his tiny nose through the web, balanced a feather on the tip of his chin.’
A sense of loss pervades these pages – not just the loss of innocence but also the paralysing fear of exclusion as embodied in the book’s title. It is repeatedly impressed upon the narrator that if he rocks the boat he won’t truly be ‘one of the boys’, an effective threat which tethers him to his abuser. The narrator’s mother remembers how her son had suffered in silence after accidentally breaking his collarbone. He had told her he chose not to grumble because “That’s how you stay one of the boys.” This kind of emotional blackmail is integral to the masculinist ideology that pervades culture and society at all levels – it is built on psychological coercion, exploiting young people’s desire for approval, validation and love. One begins to tire of observing, whenever toxic subject matter comes up in contemporary fiction or nonfiction, that it offers food for thought in light of the current world situation; but it really is hard to overlook the resonance of a story like this at a cultural moment when masculinism appears emboldened and empowered, everywhere from social media to the very corridors of power.
The understated candour of Magariel’s storytelling recalls Garth Greenwell’s excellent 2016 debut, What Belongs to You, which deals with father-son relationships and male vulnerability in a similarly honest way. The process of emotional dissociation – the weakening of the father’s psychic hold over his son, paving the way for the denouement – is rendered with skill and sensitivity: ‘I felt myself withdrawing from him. It was as if I had been pulled out of the action of a play. I became a viewer, observing a scene.’
For all its grace and poise, though, One of the Boys is more or less formally conventional and its plot-line straightforward. Perhaps the aesthetic bar ought to be set a little higher for novels of this kind, if they are to be immunised against the charge that they constitute a sub-genre of fictive misery memoir. When the narrator’s mother says, in a note to his father, “You scare me sometimes”, the line calls to mind an almost identical sentence in the Whatsapp correspondence between Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius that was examined during the latter’s 2014 murder trial. Of course, this kind of desperate, portentous plea for understanding is commonplace in domestic violence scenarios; and besides, even if the author had consciously decided to appropriate it more or less verbatim, he would have been perfectly entitled to do so. But with that entitlement comes a responsibility to do something more with it than merely collaging a grisly composite transcript. You tend towards the generic at the expense of specificity, at the expense of the singularity that distinguishes a brilliant novel from a merely competent one. Here, as so often in recent contemporary fiction, the interface of archival realism and creative imagination is negotiated with mixed results.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Houman Barekat is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, forthcoming from O/R Books.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 14th, 2017.