One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel review – a father’s abuse

This powerful debut explores the manipulation and lies of a crack-addicted father through the eyes of his 12-year-old son

In the opening of Daniel Magariel’s debut novel, the 12-year-old narrator is coerced by his father into punching himself in the face. The purpose is to photograph the resulting injuries in order to “prove” the boy’s mother is beating him, so the father can get sole custody of his two sons. When the narrator shows reluctance, his father says, “I thought you wanted to come with us. I thought you were one of the boys.” At this, the narrator makes up his mind and hits himself over and over until he looks sufficiently like an abused child. The photographs are then a team effort: “My brother pulled each photo from the mouth of the camera. My father kept clicking until the button stuck. After they developed, we chose five of the Polaroids to show Child Protective Services.” Mission accomplished, “the boys” leave their home in Kansas and set out for a new life in Albuquerque.

Among the many ironies of the novel’s opening is its parody of masculinity. Here, being “one of the boys” means joining a conspiracy of lies, harming yourself in vile and stupid ways, then blaming it all on a woman. It’s also notable that masculinity is not about being a man, but a boy. Maleness is a kind of unrepentant childishness, without any mother/wife to criticise and lay down rules. The father even promises his sons that, once they arrive in Albuquerque, “I’ll be a kid again. We’ll all be kids again.”

Soon we learn that, in addition to being a misogynist and an abuser, the father is a crack addict. (“We’re all entitled to one bad habit, aren’t we?” he tells his sons. “You guys have bad habits, too.”) He is also a compulsive manipulator: he flatters and threatens his sons; he makes them collaborators in his petty crimes; he isolates them from the outside world and makes them repeat cultish maxims such as “Family is all we have”. When his power is threatened, he becomes hysterically, explosively violent.

Perhaps the most painful part of this book is its depiction of how victims can collude with an abuser. The boys don’t just cover up for their father, they hurt each other at his command, and in one particularly ugly flashback, take part in the physical abuse of their mother. Magariel’s portrayal of this process is remarkably lucid and unsparing. Some passages feel so true, you keep wanting to put the book down to applaud.

However, because it hones in on instances of abuse to the exclusion of all else, it risks feeling like a deposition rather than a story. Whenever the father appears, he is doing another thing that would scar a child for life. Virtually every adult is a seedy, frightening derelict to whom the boys are exposed through the father’s neglect. The only character we meet from their school is a basketball coach who punishes the older son for being late to practice – which, of course, is his father’s fault. Every event is fraught with blame and fear, and even the scenery is uniformly ominous: “A shadow crept across the fields. Crows looked on from power lines. The warning siren wailed.” While the low-life characters and grim settings are wonderfully drawn, you begin to wonder: could Albuquerque really be that bad?

In a book of only 160 pages, much of this might be justified as focus, but it seems like a mistake when it extends to the inner lives of the boys. Their father is their only world. They have no friends. They have no crushes on girls. They don’t have hobbies or habits or favourite TV shows or likes or dislikes. In real life, even the most brutalised children are more than the sum of their abuse. The main conflict of the book concerns whether the narrator will ultimately break free from his father – but he never develops enough of a psychology for us to see the decision as his. Abusive relationships can make victims feel their identity has been stripped away, that nothing remains of them but a series of reactions dictated by the abuser’s behaviour. One wishes Magariel had been able to evoke this experience while also conveying that it’s not true.

This is not to dismiss what he has achieved. In one of his many crises, the father challenges his sons, “Tell me one true thing about life … Either of you. Tell me one true thing.” Magariel has triumphantly, unforgettably, told us one true thing.

• Sandra Newman’s latest novel is The Country of Ice Cream Star (Vintage). One of the Boys is published by Granta. To order a copy for £11.04 (RRP £12.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Sandra Newman

The GuardianTramp

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