In his debut novel, “One of the Boys,” Daniel Magariel takes a significant risk: He leaves its three main characters — two boys and the tornado of their abusive father — nameless.
We’ve seen this kind of anonymity in fiction tuned to achieve a range of effects, from the universal proxy of “Everyman’’ to the no-use-for-a-name nihilism of Samuel Beckett. In Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” for instance, the world inhabited (and embodied) by the unidentified father and son is one “shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities,” with “the names of things slowly following those things into oblivion.” Names reduce us to nouns.
Magariel’s party of three joins a noted recent uptick in nameless fictional characters, but in his novel, the effect is more difficult to discern. Sometimes this tale of two brothers swept by the storm of their abusive father from Kansas to New Mexico feels like an allegorical space for readers to occupy with their own experience; other times it feels like a story hovering somewhere between pure fiction and halting memoir.
But the tactic is most effective when it helps impart some of the suffocation of life in an abusive family. We are confined throughout to the perspective (and occasionally interrupting memory) of the youngest brother, and the namelessness helps reduce the three characters from independent selves down to codependent roles: “My father,” “your brother.” The absent mother, too, remains nameless on the periphery of the book, emerging only a voice over the phone or hanging in the memory, and, as eventually comes clear, a tidal force that pushes the boys away and pulls them back in. Without names, the bare leverage of family is exposed.
In a way, Magariel takes a cue from the father, blocking out the windows, bolting the doors, keeping us from meeting too many outsiders, and telling us only what is required to shape our loyalty. “One of the Boys” is a book about taking control, marking territory, and choosing sides; and Magariel knows how to make life beyond the reach of abuse seem distant enough not to see, if not impossible to imagine.
What the absence of names doesn’t do in the case of “One of the Boys” is soften the impact of any of the cruelty, anger, bitterness, and manipulation that move the story (and force the family) forward. Magariel writes the father’s ingratiating charm more effectively than the voices of either child, but this imbalance only makes the former sound more sinister. It’s a novel of short, blunt, often powerful sentences — some a bit too insistently doing their Ernest best to project a masculinity as still and arid as the Albuquerque air.
Magariel’s writing really takes off when he turns his gaze toward nature — like a sudden storm kicking up, he can grow musical and painterly within the space of a few lines, as though not having to process motive or imagine dialogue sets his vision free like “an enormous flock of birds warp[ing] in the wind.”
In one of several flashbacks that steal us mercifully away from the house in Albuquerque, the boy recalls a day spent fishing with his father, with the only fond memories the moments he spent alone:
“The sun was bright. The water at the surface of the lake was molten. The first patches of fall had blossomed in the tree line. Small waves from a soft breeze swayed the boat gently. Enormous rocks slept beneath us like dormant elephants. And then the fish would tail-slap the bucket again.”
It’s the kind of evocative writing that I wish charged through the entire book, short as it is. But Magariel’s careful way of doling out these measured portions of beauty plays against the stalling stiffness of his prose elsewhere, and it comes across less like the stumbles of a first-time novelist and more like the structured reward of the manipulator.
Which, I should be clear, is not to say Magariel is nearly as cruel as the father he’s written, but he’s at least as clever. He knows, for instance, that abuse isn’t something you can see through the windows — the only way to show us is to bring us inside. And he also knows the ways abuse inhabits other words: “love” or “loyalty” or “family” — that is, he knows that names can often can conceal more than they reveal.
ONE OF THE BOYS
By Daniel Magariel
Scribner, 168 pp., $22