A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice A “gripping and heartfelt” (The New York Times Book Review) story about two young brothers contending with the love they have for their abusive father, One of the Boys is a stunning, compact debut by a major new talent.
The three of them—a twelve-year-old boy, his older brother, their father—have won the war: the father’s term for his bitter divorce and custody battle. They leave their Kansas home and drive through the night to Albuquerque, eager to begin again, united by the thrilling possibility of carving out a new life together. The boys go to school, join basketball teams, make friends. Meanwhile their father works from home, smoking cheap cigars to hide another smell. But soon the little missteps—the dead-eyed absentmindedness, the late night noises, the comings and goings of increasingly odd characters—become worrisome, and the boys find themselves watching their father change, grow erratic, then dangerous.
Set in the sublimely stark landscape of suburban New Mexico and a cramped apartment shut tight to the world, One of the Boys conveys with propulsive prose and extraordinary compassion a young boy’s struggle to hold onto the pieces of his shattered family. Tender, moving and beautiful, Daniel Magariel’s masterful debut is a story of resilience and survival: two foxhole-weary brothers banding together to protect each other from the father they once trusted, but no longer recognize. With the emotional core of A Little Life and the speed of We the Animals, One of the Boys is among the most remarkable debut novels you’ll ever read.
One of the Boys ONE My father was swerving around cars, speeding, honking. I rested my head on the strap of the seat belt, tried to ignore how fast he was driving, unsure if he was outrunning the storm or just angry with me. My mother and I had gotten into a fight. She’d called him to come pick me up from her apartment. He resented any dealings with her. It was midday, spring. A shadow crept across the fields. Crows looked on from power lines. The warning sirens wailed.
“Let me look at you,” he said. He thumbed my earlobe. “Well?”
I looked to the road to remind him he was driving.
“What did she tell you?” I asked.
“You answer a question with a question? She said you were out of control.”
“Why is your face so red?” he said.
Embarrassed, I went quiet, kept to myself. He knew I’d been crying. When we pulled into his driveway, I opened the door. He told me to shut it. I slammed it too hard.
“I was supposed to go to the movies,” I said. “I’d made plans.”
“Before the tornado watch?”
He repeated the question.
“I told her I was leaving, and she blocked the door, so I grabbed the phone and ran to my room.”
“So today’s the day she decides to start being a mother.” He laughed wildly. “She had to hold you down?” he said, almost not a question. “Did she hurt you?”
I tried to remember. She had wrestled me to the bed. Then I was on my stomach. She twisted my fingers, took the phone. I tried throwing her off. That was when her hand holding the phone came down on my head. Now I fingered the tender spot on my skull, pressed it hard, wanting the pain, wishing the bump were visible.
“I don’t know,” I said. “No.”
“Did she hit you?”
“I don’t think she meant to.”
He pulled me close, put his arms around me, patted my back to the rhythm of the wipers. It was an awkward hug. The kind of embrace you give to a grieving stranger. “It’s OK, son,” he said. “It’s OK.” He sat me up. My older brother was standing in front of the Jeep, palms to the sky, shrugging at the rain just now quickening. “Let’s go inside.”
* * *
My father equated the granting of privacy with respect. Even when our bedroom doors were open, he knocked, waited to be invited in. We did not yet know why sometimes, when his door was closed, he did not answer. Since the separation he’d assigned each of us our own bathroom. His was still the master, upstairs, the same one he’d once shared with our mother. My brother’s, the hallway bathroom, was on the same floor as our bedrooms. To decide who would get it our dad had measured the distance with footsteps—my brother’s door was closer than mine. Two floors down next to the basement was my bathroom. Only on those late nights when, staring out my window, cigar tip aglow, my father would whisper me awake, Be my eyes, was I allowed to use the hallway bathroom, and only because he’d entered my bedroom without asking.
Here, in my bathroom, the Weather Channel spoke to us from the television in the basement. My brother looked at the Polaroids developing on the sink top. The ghostly shapes taking my form. My downcast eyes. My messy hair I’d made messier, shirt collar I had stretched to look rougher. My father seemed displeased.
“You look too good,” he said. “You were in much worse shape when I picked you up, weren’t you?”
It was a question meant to convince my brother.
“Yes,” I said.
“Maybe more light?” my brother said.
He brought the lamp from the basement, plugged it in, tilted back the shade.
“Now, son, try to look how you felt when she hit you.”
My father pressed the button. A photo reeled from the mouth of the camera. My brother placed it on the pile. We waited.
“Lamp help?” my father asked.
My brother shook his head.
“Fuck,” my father said.
I held my breath, bit my lip until it bled, then took a bigger bite.
Two more photos.
“What do you think?” my father asked my brother. “What else can we try?”
“Makeup?” my brother suggested.
“You got any?” my father asked.
“Upstairs,” I answered. “Next to his dolls and tampons.”
“I could try slapping him?” my brother joked. “That might work.”
My father turned to me. “How would you feel about that, son?”
My brother started to say something, that he’d been kidding, but my father silenced him. I’d hesitated too long.
“I thought you wanted to come with us,” my father said to me.
“I thought you were one of the boys.”
“Swear to me.”
“I did already.”
My father set down the camera.
“Why don’t you make him swear,” I said, pointing at my brother.
“Because you’re the one who tells your mother everything,” he said.
“Please, just do it,” my brother said. “Just swear.”
“You can stay in Kansas,” my father said. He turned to walk out of the bathroom. “Your brother and I are leaving without you.”
“No, Dad,” my brother said.
“Fine,” I said. “I swear. Again.”
My father came back into the bathroom, picked up the camera. He put his hands on my shoulders, rotated me square with him.
“Close your eyes,” he said.
I closed them.
“I want you to listen to me. Are you listening? When you were born, I mean right after the birth, your mother didn’t want to hold you, either of you. She passed you off to me as soon as the doctor handed you over. I’d never seen anything like it. I mean, what kind of mother doesn’t want to hold her baby? I can deal with the fact that she’s never been much of a wife to me. But the terrible mother she’s been to you? That has burned me for years. Don’t you remember what I was like when you were young? Before the war?” War was the word he used for divorce. “I used to be a kid. We used to play together. The three of us. Remember?” Yes, I thought to myself, I remember. My brother and I are sitting on the carpet watching TV when suddenly we hear a low growl. We look at each other. There is no time to react. My heart quickens the instant before our dad on hands and knees crawls into the living room, roars. We climb all over him, working together to tackle the beast. “Do you remember, son?”
He squeezed my shoulders.
“This will end the war,” he said. “No custody. No child support. This will get us free. Free to start our lives over. You’ll see. In New Mexico I’ll be a kid again. We’ll all be kids again. How’s that sound? Isn’t that what you want?”
I heard my father load the camera.
My brother, I could feel, stepped toward me.
My eyes still closed, I locked my wrists behind my back. The beast is defeated, sprawled out on the carpet. My brother and I are lying on his stomach, facing each other. My brother’s hair is darker than mine. Skin too. His coloring betrays a natural alliance with our father. They have the same sleepy, smiling eyes, which in sunlight turn brown as a bottle. I’m blond like our mother, with her hazel eyes. My ears, though, are my dad’s, big like when he was my age. As the beast breathes, our heads rise and fall together, and with a smile he stole from our dad, which our dad probably stole from a movie, my brother’s lips reveal his top row of teeth like a slow-rising curtain. I opened my eyes. My brother’s arm was drawn back, ready to swing. I did not want him to hit me. I did not want him to have to hit me.
“Wait,” I said.
“What?” my father said.
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 from the blow. With my right, with my left, with my right, with my left. I faced my father. “Now,” I said. “Take it now.” I showed him my cheek. “This angle.” With my right, my right, my right. “Again,” I said. “Another. Take another.”
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.
* * *
An hour later, rain streaming down the one window, the basement had grown dark. The three of us quietly watched the weather report. The storm, which at first had looked like an amoeba shifting across the screen, had become unmoving bands of red and orange, as if the television had frozen, or the storm had turned sedentary, a new land formation across eastern Kansas. My father was hunched over in his chair, the heels of his shoes clamped to the bottom rung. He was about to spring.
“Let’s go hunt twisters,” he said.
We drove to the water tower.
Darkness advanced, not from the east, but the west. From the clouds at the front of the storm there was lightning. An enormous flock of birds warped in the wind. My father offered a reward to whoever spotted the first tornado. We stayed there for some time, our eyes peeled, closely surveying the horizon. But we saw none and eventually drove off. At home our fence had been torn from the ground. When my father saw the damage, he laughed and said, “Looks like the storm was hunting us,” and after we moved to New Mexico, he referenced this whenever something worked out, and also whenever something did not.
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This reading group guide for One of the Boys includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
A twelve-year-old boy, his older brother, and their father leave their Kansas home after framing their mother as an abusive parent, only to find real abuse in their new home in Albuquerque. The boys go to school, join basketball teams, try to forge a new life, but their manipulative, increasingly drug-addicted father keeps them from attaining anything like normalcy. He becomes more unstable, more controlling, more violent. And soon the brothers’ only hope for survival is each other and their willingness to defend themselves against the father whose love they once thought made them a family.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. None of the members of this family—either of the brothers, their father, or their mother—are given names in the novel. Why do you think Magariel made this choice? What is its effect?
2. Convincing the narrator to commit more seriously to the ploy of taking photos that would incriminate his mother, the boy’s father tells him, “I thought you were one of the boys” (page 5). Why do you think this is the line that gives the book its title, and why does it motivate the brothers to go along with their father’s plan?
3. Given that the three main characters are male and the title of the book seems on the surface to be an affirmation of masculinity, do you think there are ways Magariel is in fact undermining these notions? Is there a lens through which to consider the story as pro-women or even feminist?
4. What role do the setting and landscape of Albuquerque play in the novel?
5. The narrator remarks, “For the most part I liked it when my father was high” (page 37). How do you make sense of this? What does it reveal about growing up in a household with drug-addicted parents?
6. The boys’ father makes the boys look at each other and tells them, “This is your brother for life. You are his last line of defense” (page 51). How do the brothers protect each other from their father? And what does it reveal about their father that he, the one who abuses them, gives them this advice?
7. The narrator remembers a plot of his and his brother’s to hurt their mother by making her fall down the stairs. They tell her afterward, “We hate you.” Their father then consoles her saying, “They didn’t mean it, come back inside” (page 57). What does this powerful memory reveal about the dynamics of abuse and the way family members can be turned against each other?
8. What is the significance of the moment at Janice’s house, when the father’s shorts are rolled up and his balls revealed to be “dangling against the sofa” (page 78)? Does it suggest something about his lack of control, the degree to which his power may ultimately be a pose?
9. What do you make of the mother’s betrayal when she encourages the boys to forgive and trust their father again after everything they’ve been through? How do you think the father was able to win her over? How are abuse, enabling, and manipulation related?
10. After being confronted with their lack of options, the narrator reflects about his father, “Our dad was an act with a single end. His trajectory: down, down, down” (page 127). Does this feel accurate to you? How can someone so self-destructive still be so charismatic and seductive?
11. How do you interpret the recurring motif of the father’s asking the boys to “be his eyes”? Is it connected to the narrator’s claim, trying to excuse his presence in his father’s room during his attempted escape, “I’m an extension of you” (page 139)?
12. In one of the story’s final moments, the narrator opens the door to his brother and the officer waiting outside. When he does so, his “eyes filled with water, and light rushed in” (page 155). What do you make of the image of light coming into their dark home near the book’s conclusion? Does it provide any reason to be optimistic about the boys’ fate?
13. Magariel makes the striking choice of ending the novel by going back in time to the first days of the boys’ trip out to Albuquerque, when they were still hopeful about their future. What do you think this accomplishes? How does this epilogue change your experience of the book as a whole?
14. Magariel has said that there is an autobiographical component to this novel, that it is an extreme version of certain aspects of his life. Does knowing that affect the way you view it? Why do you think he made the decision to tell this story as fiction?
15. One of the Boys is a very short novel, covering a relatively small span of time. How did its length affect your reading experience? Do you think it was easier to digest the violence and harrowing nature of the story because of its quick, short form?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read another very short novel about a fractured family confronting questions of abuse, We the Animals by Justin Torres. Discuss how the two novels are similar or different.
2. Be “the eyes” of someone in your book club. Look out a window and describe what you see to your partner, then discuss what the experience is like.
Daniel Magariel is an author from Kansas City. His work has appeared in Granta, Lit Hub, Salt Hill, Stop Smiling, and Issue Magazine, among others. One of the Boys, his first novel, was a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and Amazon Best Book of 2017, and was published in twelve countries. He has a BA from Columbia University, as well as an MFA from Syracuse University, where he was a Cornelia Carhart Fellow. He currently lives in New York with his wife. Visit him at DanielMagariel.com.
“Feral and tender . . . a gorgeously tight tale swelling with wisdom about the self-destructive longing for paternal approval and the devastating consequences of clinging to rotten models of masculinity. . . . Magariel’s gripping and heartfelt debut is a blunt reminder that the boldest assertion of manhood is not violence stemming from fear. It is tenderness stemming from compassion.”
– The New York Times Book Review
“A knockout debut... A shimmering, heartbreaking portrait of children fiercely devoted to a damaged parent and of the intense sibling bond that helps them through.”
"A slim, deeply affecting and brutal story, One of the Boys is about the fierce power of a father-son relationship... what Magariel achieves is a novel that makes readers feel what it would be like to live on high alert all the time; to be at the mercy of a father's addictions, crackpot whims and surges of violence. He also makes us feel what it would be like to still love such a father. The subject of One of the Boys is archetypal, but Magariel's novel depicts it with the power of stark revelation. We cannot turn away."
– NPR, Fresh Air
"Striking... A novel of short, blunt, often powerful sentences... Musical and painterly."
– Boston Globe
"One of the most striking debut novels of the year... one of the most affecting portrayals of the bonds that keep us tied to family... It's [his] compassion and deep understanding of the dynamics of addiction that make Daniel Magariel's slim book an important one."
– Rolling Stone
"Brilliant, urgent, darkly funny, heartbreaking—a tour de force with startling new things to say about class, masculinity, addiction, and family. Daniel Magariel is an exciting new presence in American writing."
– George Saunders, author of Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo
"Precise and coiled and urgent. Magariel is able--as few writers can--to say so much in so little. A propulsive and intense debut."
– Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life
"Intense, harrowing and brilliantly written... Brutally honest and lyrically compelling... Shows a mastery of control and a labyrinth of nuance... Stunning."
– Providence Journal
“With a charismatic, macho, drug-addicted dad, the young narrator pays an awful price to be One of the Boys in the riveting debut novel by Daniel Magariel. Move over Great Santini, this patriarch is rendered with such artful love, you'll be haunted by his presence long after you close this graceful and heartbreaking book.”
– Mary Karr, author of Lit and The Liar's Club
"A captivating portrait of a wayward father, brimming with charm and trouble."
– Justin Torres, author of We the Animals
– The New Yorker
"A deeply affecting portrait of innocence lost. Like Emma Donoghue’s Room, One of the Boys is impossible to resist as we root for these young men to escape their brutal (yet charismatic) father. We feel the strength of the child through Magariel's precise, understated and unflinching prose, which builds in emotion and suspense by keeping us very close to how each moment leads to the next. A beautiful debut."
– Dana Spiotta, author of Innocents and Others
"Daniel Magariel's absolutely brilliant and beautiful novel is that rarest thing: an incredibly mature book about kids. Not since I read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping have I felt so at once in the presence of the magic-logic terrors of childhood and the too real and consequential realms of adults. The children in this novel act like loving, terrified parents; the parents behave like the most destructive of children. Yet Magariel has managed to tell the story of this failing family with so much love and gentleness that the lasting impression of this novel--full of enraging scenes and calamitous decisions--is of the unknowing courage unique to youth.”
– Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
"Short but haunting... Scenes of paternal neglect under the Southwestern sky call to mind certain chunks of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch... A stunning discussion of parent-child loyalty, masculinity, and how the only person we can truly save is ourselves."
"A stunning and tragic portrait of both the joys and limitations of love."
– Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Joining Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life in its brilliant picture of a boyhood twisted by abuse and Justin Torres' We the Animals in both its concision and its portrait of the bond between brothers, Magariel's debut is sure, stinging, and deeply etched, like the outlines of a tattoo. Belongs on the short shelf of great books about child abuse.”
– Kirkus, starred review
"Slim and sharp as an ice-pick."
– Library Journal
"Remarkably lucid and unsparing... Some passages feel so true, you keep wanting to put the book down to applaud... 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."
– The Guardian
“Told in prose that's spare and concise, this is a heartbreaking but compelling portrait of a childhood twisted by a controlling parent, as well as the unbreakable bond between brothers.”
– Daily Mail (UK)
“Set in stifling Albuquerque, this debut novel [is] a companion to Breaking Bad… Unflinching… Vivid yet spare.”
– Financial Times (UK)
“Spine-chilling... Magariel packs an impressive amount of emotion into his short book. Readers will root for the brothers, whose love for each other comes across on the page as simultaneously heroic and credible.”
– Irish Times
“An absolutely standout novel... It left me feeling impressed [and] mournful. A book that you find yourself thinking about weeks later... A stunning writer.”
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