There has been a recent influx of books addressing the precarious adolescence of little girls and the challenges they face as they reach the threshold of adulthood – the insecurities, conflicting loyalties and friendships. However, I have not come across many books exploring these issues from the perspective of young men. One of the Boys, in that vein, is a well-timed piece of work which gives un unflinching glimpse into the life of two adolescent boys as they grapple with their dysfunctional relationship with their father.
The book is written from the perspective of a 12 year-old boy and opens with his dad ‘rescuing’ him and his older brother from their mother by taking them away to New Mexico after divorce. The boys have been duped by their charismatic father into siding with him in the ensuing ugly custody battle but it rapidly becomes clear that he is far from a stable parental figure himself.
He is egocentric and delusional to a dangerous degree. His self-seeking agendas are abhorrent with appalling disregard for his children’s well-being. Early on in the book, he makes his older son hit his youngest so that he can take bruised photos of him to incriminate their mother in front of Child Protective Services, absolving him from paying spousal support. He uses psychological and emotional manipulation to guilt his children into doing his bidding. His tactics are cruel and his obsession with keeping his children near him are not born out of paternal love but out of his conceited need to one-up his wife. He has a worsening drug habit and we see his inevitable descent into addiction as he gradually comes apart.
The gullible yet perceptive young boy, who remains unnamed, is the most heartbreaking character in the book. His world revolves around the two people he looks up to the most – his big brother and his dad. He is painfully conflicted when his dad, after a fallout with his brother, asks him to pick sides. There is a particularly tough scene when their father persuades him to turn against his brother and help him brutally assault him. My heart went out to him as he desperately tried to rationalize his act to himself, brotherly love and feelings of guilt niggling him at the back of his mind.
Family is supposed to be our safe haven, the anchor in the chaos of life. So this book is an unsettling read in that regard, where the very people who are meant to protect you from the vagaries of life inflict the harshest blows. The boys project all the negative emotions for their dad,which they secretly harbor but are too insecure to confront, on their mother who is painted as a villain. With laconic brevity, Daniel evinces how difficult it can be to sever familial ties even when they become venomous.
The deceptively simple prose packs a mean punch. The writer revealed that his father was a drug addict which is probably why the protagonist’s voice sounds so authentic and affecting rather than contrived. Storytelling from a child’s perspective, if done right, is very effective as the ingenuous narration means that the readers end up knowing more than the protagonist as he is only using his guileless logic to navigate through life. This draws the reader in as they derive more from the story than is being let on. The boy’s voice here reminded me of a bit of Our Endless Numbered Days and shows how keeping the narration elementary and unambiguous is extremely impactful.
This book is a gut-wrenching read and makes a provocative case against the version of manhood prevalent in society which allows them to be scarred and traumatized but not to reveal a moment of weakness or get mocked. The flip side of the ideals of this toxic masculinity which mistakes sensitivity for being a sissy and aggressiveness for machismo are brilliantly depicted in this story. In one moving passage, the boy’s mother recalls how his father once broke his collarbone but he didn’t utter a word and when asked why said ‘that’s how you stay one of the boys’. One of the Boys is one of those books which is harrowing in parts but is ultimately an authentic and poignant portrayal of addiction and abuse.
One of the Boys is published by Granta.