The irresistible, short novel begins with good feelings for the plans of the three main characters —— a father and his two young sons. They’ve left behind the boys’ mom/the dad’s ex-wife after a divorce and custody fight.
In the rearview mirror are the plains of Kansas; in the front windshield the high desert of New Mexico.
Sitting in an Albuquerque bar, the dad reveals to his sons that when he was a young man he traveled to the Southwest: “There was something down here, something in the sunsets, in the mountains, the people. The Indian way of life. I call it … the spirit.” He wants to find that spirit again, ostensibly by forging a new routine, and maybe discovering a new life.
The boys — a 12-year-old who is the story’s narrator and an older brother who is in high school — initially and innocently back him. They want the togetherness of a family even if it’s a fraternal trio. At school, they join basketball teams, make a few friends. The upbeat start quickly turns bleak with terrifying moments.
The three live in a small two-bedroom apartment. Dad is a financial adviser now working from home. But he’s revealed as a con man, a bully and a drug user whose addiction sends his business spiraling through the floor and his drug-fueled anger through the ceiling.
Dad is divisive, playing one boy against the other. He’s slothful and misguided and terrorizes his sons. Dad’s physical and verbal abuse surfaces in graphically described scenes. There’s a final chapter that gives the reader false hope for the trio and an epilogue that really isn’t. Even so, I felt myself desperately holding out hope for the boys’ future, a future without their loser dad.
In a phone interview, Magariel said he chose the Duke City as the setting after having lived here with his family for several years in the late 1990s. He briefly attended Eisenhower Middle School and La Cueva High School.
“Having been born in Kansas, where there’s nothing but flat land and then in Albuquerque, having a directional totem, the Sandias … the stark beauty, the wide-open vistas,” said Magariel, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“It’s very strange for a kid coming here from where there are none of those. I saw it through the eyes of the narrator who is about the same age as I was.”
He said he wanted to explore the “weight of the dramatic change of that landscape. … I’ve always carried Albuquerque and New Mexico with me ever since I lived there. It’s a beautiful idea, even though it’s opposite for the characters of the book.”
Incidentally, the father and his sons have no names. Magariel explained why: “Something happens to me when I put a name on a character. They become less real.”
By contrast, the female characters are named. The mother/ex-wife is nicknamed Amalekite, though the author usually calls her “her.” Secondary female characters have first names and are sympathetically presented.