It takes about 20 minutes of talking about process, working with George Saunders at the Syracuse MFA program and the “Dirty Realism” fiction of the 1980s – that included writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Carver – for Daniel Magariel to point out that the germ of his story was something more than just a writing prompt that turned into one of the most striking debut novels of the year. “My dad was a drug addict,” he eventually says, somewhat quietly. The material for his first book, One of the Boys, hits very close to home.
The Kansas City-born author says things you’d expect a writer to say (“I don’t have much patience for myself,” he says of his writing. “So if it feels like bullshit, it’s going.”), but he’s produced one of the most affecting portrayals of the bonds that keep us tied to family, how poisonous those bonds can become and how often we’re in no position to sever those bonds.
By writing about, in his own words, “a 12-year-old who’s experiencing his father’s steep descent into addiction,” Magariel also uncovers just how little boys are often raised in society and are then expected to be a certain kind of “man.” To be tough, to be loyal and to hold things in – essentially how toxic masculinity is developed.
The plot revolves around two brothers and their charismatic father who run away from their home and mother in Kansas and head west to Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, in short time, we see things fall apart. Mainly, we watch as the father loses control of everything. His addiction turns him what could be seen as a deranged cult leader, as he dictates cruel commands to his sons. The book moves fast because, as Magariel puts it, “How do you process that? There’s not a lot of time for reflection.” Addiction is like an out-of-control animal, and it goes after everybody around it. We see that with the father, he’s manipulative and abusive, but he’s also an addict.
Magariel hasn’t been sharing personal anecdotes since his book came out; he isn’t trading his life experiences for a little bit of extra press, or even saying the book is semi-autobiographical. But the reality is Magariel’s real-life experiences had some influence over the resulting novel. He’s a talented writer, no doubt, but writing about addiction can oftentimes come off as exploitative, over-researched – bullshit, if we’re being honest.
“Being a young kid and discovering ‘Hey, dad acts weird sometimes. Why does dad act weird? Why is his door closed? What are those smells?’ Those sort of intimate, private dynamics,” Magariel says. Those are things that the child of an addict understands all too well, and he’s tried to detach himself from those experiences and tell this fictional story – which can be just as tough.
“The father was difficult [to write],” he says. “How do you write a man who has some redeeming characteristics but, as he falls deeper into addiction, his humanity falls apart?”
So far, Magariel has received feedback from readers who tell him the father “is one of the worst characters they’ve ever read.” He realizes that’s a compliment, but doesn’t totally feel that way. It’s that kind of compassion and deep understanding of the dynamics of addiction that make Daniel Magariel’s slim book an important one.