The Boys by Toni Sala

Reviewed By

Vidreres, a village in the restive Catalonia region of Spain, has been hit hard by the global recession of 2008. It sustains a further blow when Jaume and Xavi, two of its promising young sons, are killed in an automobile accident. “The fierce screech [of the tires] had flown over the fields, appearing on the streets of Vidreres with such violence that the next day the townspeople found tire skid marks in the hallways of their homes, on their sofas, in their showers, on their sheets.” In The Boys, Toni Sala paints a portrait of the impact of globalization and generational conflict on Vidreres—a very particular place and time—through the reactions of four characters to the deaths of the young men.

Ernest, a duty-bound middle-aged banker, is offended by the randomness of the deaths and stifled by the rituals of his life.

…an unexpected death…kills hope and longing…doesn’t leave time for making plans or for renouncing making plans, it is a death that doesn’t let death live, doesn’t let it make a will, or project anything for what’s left of life, that kills the future like any death but also kills all possible expectations and therefore kills the past, it is a retroactive death…

Ernest suffers from survivor’s guilt and survivor’s envy, simultaneously.

Miqui is a 30-something truck driver, boorish and mouthy, seething with resentment toward the government and big business. He is sure that his father’s generation conspired against him, stealing the future he’d been promised, saddling him and his generation with crushing debt as they borrow to pay for their parents’ lifestyles. “The old folks had the good jobs and salaries, they had the dough, they had gotten there first.” Miqui envies the dead men their escape.

Iona is the fiancé of Jaume, one of the deceased brothers. They had been a couple since high school. Iona is lost, floundering—her entire future, which had been assured yesterday, is no longer.

Person, animal, or landscape—it happened like with the professors at college: learning wasn’t merely receiving, it was an exchange, nothing was free, getting to know someone meant giving part of your life and that life was what you cried over later, when someone took it with him into the void. And right now Jaume was fleeing like a thief.

Toni Sala

Toni Sala

Nil is a failed artist (“People who complicate their lives”), recently returned to his parent’s farm, which adjoins the farm where Jaume’s and Xavi’s parents are mourning. Nil is a more than a little unhinged (“he became a comic book monster like the ones he drew in high school”) but he’s attempting to return to a simpler place and time (“so the flesh and the land could be the same, and in this perpetuation his existence was at stake, the existence of his ancestors, life itself was at stake”), and restore his parents’ faith in him. So Nil is ought to agree to his father’s plan to ensure that the adjoining farm is sold to them, not to Iona’s family. Nil envies the mourning for the brothers. As long as you are remembered, you are immortal.

When these four characters’ lives intertwine the results are unpredictable, to say the least. In Mara Faye Lethem’s translation, Sala chooses his words carefully, creating evocative, unexpected images. The mountains: “the luminous teeth of the Pyrenees.” A boatyard where repossessed “trophies” are laid to rest: “A raspberry patch had slowly been invading one area of the cemetery, the bramble had grown and taken over some of the ships, hugging them, tangling around them and covering them like a slow green wave, a thorny wave through which a bow, a submerged berth, or a bit of railing occasionally peeked through.” Nil gazing out his window: “the winter mornings rose wet with milky fog, and the dew’s pledge: branches with pearl earrings on their tips, wisps of fodder with necklaces of crystal flowers, grains of sand with tiny diamond rings.”

Sala likes to free-associate glorious run-on sentences. Here he considers what the brother who was driving the car thought as he saw his unavoidable fate coming for him.

He flooded the half second, or what was left of the half second, the longest half second of his life, half a second of explosions, half a second that the driver would have lengthened or shortened infinitely but was only able to turn into the best utilized half second, the most lived half second of his life: a terrorific farewell, the skull awaiting the bullet, a half second that never reaches its end but will be over at any moment, when you least expect it, suddenly, but what do you do in the meantime?

In this slim volume, death—of people, animals, economies, futures, nation-states, identity—is the ultimate mystery, a permanent frustration, but ubiquitous and banal, the most natural thing in the world.

We spend our lives in retreat, only at the bottom of the well can we know if life was worth living or not, or to put it better, even though it’s the same thing: we can know whether or not we can know if life was worth living or not. And we can’t communicate that knowledge.

A member of the National Book Critics Circle, Writers' League of Texas, and PEN American, Michelle Newby is a contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, and freelance writer. Her reviews appear in PANK, Pleiades Journal, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist. More from this author →