In Magariel’s thoughtful, poignantly observed consideration of two brothers and their abusive, drug-addicted father, the bonds of family and the consequences of a marriage all come into play in an intriguing, believable way. The novel gains emotional complexity as we read
yet is concise enough to allow us to feel each of the characters’ pain. In the late
Seventies, this unnamed 12-year-old boy drives from Kansas to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his older brother and his father. The three hope to begin anew where the boy can finally lead
a comfortable suburban life, one he always believed was unattainable.
With his father’s penchant for violence undiminished, the boy tells us about his private fears, born out of his father’s frustration with their mother and the cruelty he seemed to reserve just for her.
The boy looks to his physically magnetic older brother for support. With a
talent for basketball and the go-to guy of the family, his brother judges the quality of his own life against the entrenched cynicism of their
father. His brother also seems committed to fanning the flames of animosity, “intent to make his own rules to his own game.” The boy is also convinced his brother is going after him to get back at
their father, “maybe because he was angry at me too.”
Magariel draws stark contrast between the natural beauty of the Albuquerque landscape--its sun-beaten doorways, faded archways, and scent of hanging chilies--with a father who at first makes a concerted effort to lead a younger and happier life. The sudden shift begins after he places
Post-it notes on his bedroom door, demanding that his children not enter. The boy is always starving and in need of money, leading him to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence. Meanwhile, the fear of punishment begins to consume his brother. All hell breaks loose when the boy decides to break his father’s “golden rule of privacy.” Ignoring the sour chemical smell from under his father’s door, the boy finally decides to enter. The violence ratchets up with threats to send them back to his mother. Unable to sleep, his father paces the confines of their apartment in his underwear “like a prisoner obsessed with own existence.”
Pulled from his rage and from his months-long cocaine binge, their father has no control over the swings of his emotions. He starts reacting with extremes--weepy at one moment, angry the next, gradually convinced that his eldest son is out to sabotage their
lives. The boy gravitates between his father and his brother, prodding, reminding, cajoling. He often hates his father and wants him humiliated. Feeling defeated, he just shrugs at his brother, unable to stop their
father’s never-ending violence. The boys adore their father but are mostly at a loss at what to do with his wrath.
He’s a conflicted, self-interested man who has gotten away with a lifetime of arrogance and bullying.
This is the crux of Magariel’s short, sharp novella: the subsurface anger
that haunts this family. The boys' mother is no help, considered gullible and so weak that “she can’t protect them.” Even her hollow plea
that “I never want put you in a position again where your dad will hurt you” is more a symptom of her own self-centeredness than a desire to do the right thing. As
the father’s fury spirals out of control, the boy becomes the viewer, observing the scene through a fractured lens. Culminating in a frighteningly vicious finale, the boy becomes our conduit to the soliloquy of a sad, desperate man, forced to shoulder the strain and the hurt as if he’s in “desperate need for an explanation.”
Although the graphic scenes of violence are often too hard to read, I found the plot consistently gripping as the boys find themselves caught up in all of the complications that come with a life of domestic abuse and of a father out to hijack their sons’ youthful dreams. Depressing subject matter aside, at least the story ends on a hopeful note, but with little sense of how this family could live a less angst-ridden, more genuine life.