Dennis McFarland


School for the Blind

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His life’s work and ambition fulfilled, Francis Brimm believes the only metamorphosis left him is a slow, affable decline toward death. So her returns to the town of his youth and to his sister, Muriel, whose life has been as uneventful as Francis’s has been exciting. But life is not about to let Francis go. Faces from the past haunt him, surprises in the present unsettle him. And suddenly, two people who thought their lives were over find themselves struggle not to be overwhelmed by new knowledge, hidden truths, and unexpected danger.

Praise for School for the Blind

“A remarkable book as rich in emotion as his previous effort, and as active and compelling—and hard to put down—as a classic whodunit … A comforting yet invigorating book that will linger with you like the best of memories—the kind that make you look forward to whatever’s next.” –USA Today

“An accomplished novel … The language soars.” –The New York Times

“An evocative, haunting story of the past recaptured … resonating with the complex message of redemption.” --Chicago Tribune

“Compelling and beautiful … School for the Blind is an extraordinarily well-written book … Like the best-loved novels of the past, it is full of voices, voices that create harmony and discord, voices that weave counterpoint … It is a book in tune with itself that chimes in the resonant spaces of our common experience; every heart will return its echo … A book meant to be read aloud, shared with someone you care about.” –The Boston Sunday Globe

“Like Anne Tyler, Mr. McFarland knows how to make time the warp and weft of a novel, and much of the pleasure of reading comes from shuttling about through the decades of a life.” –The New York Times Book Review

“An honest, uplifting book, the most affecting and satisfying work of fiction I have read this year.” –The Miami Herald

“McFarland displays an extraordinary ability to describe both states of mind and the evanescent physical sensations that accompany them … When he allows his language to soar into poetry, it is transcendent and beautifully moving.” –Publishers Weekly

“Hauntingly poignant … Readers of any age will identify with these characters, who, in the winter of their years, seek out the design that will lend meaning to all that has gone before.” –Los Angeles Daily News

“Dennis McFarland is a fine writer. Fine in the sense of praiseworthy. Fine in the sense of subtle and nuanced. And fine perhaps in the third inchoate sense—the way the Irish talk about the weather being fine when what they really mean is: constantly shifting in a way that doesn’t really rule out hope. School for the Blind is that way.” –The Hartford Courant

“A moving story of pain and memory and the means we seize to escape them.” –The Arizona Republic

School for the Blind fully confirms the promise of The Music Room … McFarland is heir to the great Southern literary tradition, and his observations, however somber in import or lyrical in delivery, are always laced with a splendid appreciation of life’s absurdities.” –The Wall Street Journal

“Astonishing … A novel that haunts your mind … Dennis McFarland displays the powers of imagination and craftsmanship that can transform news trivia into timeless fiction.” –The Seattle Times

“A journey of self-discovery … The many story lines are enough to make this novel good reading, but they are only one part of the magic McFarland weaves. Here his mastery of language manifests itself in imagery about seeing, in both the literal and figurative senses.” –The San Diego Union Tribune

“Imaginative and understated … This book is hard to classify, as a detective novel or as serious fiction. But it sneaks up on you. So carefully unplotted it keeps you guessing how it can possibly work out, it’s one of the most inventive suspense novels I’ve read in a long time.” –The Detroit News

“Dennis McFarland combines the familiarity of the police procedural with the unsettling dream images of literary fiction. Trying to solve inexplicable deaths, his characters stumble upon clues to their own lives.” –The Asheville Citizen-Times

Full review

SIBLING REVERIES In a novel of remarkable compassion, Dennis McFarland explores the haunting power of a family’s shared past

Dennis McFarland writes novels that affirm family values.

For him, that expression, ''family values,'' is not just a smiling mask for some nasty prejudices, or a convenient shorthand for some fantasy derived from Dick and Jane, Puff and Spot, or Nan and Bert, Fred and Flossie -- a fantasy completely removed from all actual human experience. All of us come from families, and the experience is something we can make the most of, or make a mess of, or any of the things in between. This in-between place is the territory McFarland has explored in his two novels, which take us back to basics in a very sophisticated way. The Watertown novelist's first book, the best-selling "The Music Room," was a work of memory, if not explicitly of autobiography. It was about a young person, poring over his early life, trying to understand why his brother committed suicide. "School for the Blind," McFarland's new novel, is complementary. It picks up the story of a family at the other end; because it is a novel about old age by a writer still in his early 40s, it is necessarily more a work of sympathetic imagination than of recollection.

Francis Brimm, 73, has roamed the world as a photojournalist, been everywhere, seen everything, and now he has come home to Pines, Fla., for what he foresees as a "slow, affable decline toward death." His older sister, Muriel, 78, has spent her entire life in the house she and Francis grew up in. Now retired from her job as librarian in the nearby school for the blind, she remains active in the life of the Church of St. Matthew and the Redeemer and busy with her little book club -- there are only three members, Muriel and her next-door neighbors Ned and Billie Otto. Muriel's observation is alert, and her tongue is sharp enough to shatter any preconceptions a stranger might formulate about the limits of her life -- in a way, she has lived more fully than Francis has. In this she is like her precursor, Constance Baines in Arnold Bennett's wonderful novel "The Old Wives Tale"; there are many parallels between Constance and Muriel, between Constance's worldly sister Sophia and Francis.

Francis' retirement does not turn out quite the way he has planned. The presence of a sensuous and unhappy woman next door reawakens old appetites; Francis discovers that a brutal murderer has used the neighboring golf course as a burial ground; there is nothing "affable" about the progress of terminal illness, which is not at all as Francis has imagined it, "something like the evenly spaced tones of a descending musical scale, perfectly pitched."

And, strangest of all, Muriel and Francis are getting on each other's nerves; each knows everything about the other -- and nothing at all. "What had pleased [Muriel] most about his return to Pines was that having him around had initially had the happy effect of taking her out of herself. But now she was being taken into herself instead, and she didn't like it." Francis asks his sister, "Do you ever get the feeling that the ground has shifted under your feet and suddenly things aren't what they were even a minute ago?" When he says that, Muriel thinks he needs counseling -- but she knows exactly what he means.

McFarland organizes "School for the Blind" around two lines of development. The first mostly occurs offstage -- the mystery of the murders and the stymied hunt for the killer. The second is the voyage of self- discovery that Muriel and Francis are so unwillingly and uncomfortably undertaking. When they start rubbing each other the wrong way, Muriel and Francis do not understand the meaning of their own lives -- they can't, because they don't understand either the substance or the context of their lives. Francis the photographer "had thought there was no longer any pure memory, only memories of memories, recollections of things once recollected." At the close of the first chapter, he is studying an old picture he had taken of Muriel, trying to unlock its secret. "It too revealed nothing new -- only Muriel in her mid-thirties, youth lingering exotically in her eyes, and Brimm couldn't think where in the world she might be standing."

By the end of the book, Muriel knows where she stands and she has found her balance; Francis has situated himself. They have come to recognize that the Pines of their childhood was in many respects "an island of madness and abomination." But they also discover that events long in the past don't explain much, account for anything. What Francis and Muriel have to learn is compassion, for each other and for themselves. Muriel "thought for a moment about empathy, about how empathy was more than a capacity to participate in another's feelings, that it was also a willingness to share one's own."

McFarland himself is a writer of extraordinary sympathy and compassion -- a sympathy and compassion that are remarkably free from sentimentality. We can even understand something about the murderer because of the way the madman writes; in a harrowing passage Muriel spirals into temporary insanity by stages that make perfect sense until we are past the point where anything makes sense. Every character in the book has his attractive and his irritating side; each is unwittingly ridiculous; each can rise to an occasion. Neighbor Ned Otto is the object of gentle fun and mild exasperation throughout most of the book; he has suffered a stroke, and he isn't all there anymore. "The barrier between sleep and wakefulness, always permeable, had become for him a mere gauze through which he passed back and forth without ceremony." Yet, at the end, even Ned sees and shares a truth about Francis.

"The Music Room" was perhaps overpraised for the wrong reasons. In an age of artless novels, here was an artful book -- in fact, one not exactly unobtrusive in its manipulations. How many book critics were wishing they had produced a first novel this accomplished -- and this popular -- after the age of 40? Also, a major theme of "The Music Room," the way alcoholism runs in families and recovery from substance abuse, was fashionable in 1990.

"School for the Blind," an even finer book, is probably also going to be admired because of its "subject matter"; it has certainly already come under attack for the same reason. Recovery is once again a theme in "School for the Blind," and the subject is now much less modish. McFarland has also picked up on the topic of sexual abuse in childhood, which is modish, and some readers are going to object to it. They are going to sympathize with Billie Otto, Muriel's neighbor, when Billie says, "I am so sick and tired of this childhood abuse stuff every time you turn on the television or pick up a magazine. Every star in Hollywood, every singer, every talk show guest. Why, you would think there wasn't a man, woman, or child who wasn't molested by their father, mother, or priest. Now the criminals have joined in the whining!"

No one is going to try to read "School for the Blind" as a murder mystery, "The Golf-Course Murders." And it would be just as much a mistake to read, or dismiss, the novel as a book "about" sexual abuse -- it will remain compelling and beautiful long after the media have moved on to the next issue of the hour. The point is not what Francis and Muriel come to remember, or finally choose to admit; "School for the Blind" is not a book about revelations and miracles.

Instead it is about dealing with the messy process of revelations, of working out some kind of salvation in the here-and-now. Self-pity is a place both Francis and Muriel pass through, but neither chooses it for a permanent address. "School for the Blind" is about how the mind converts experience into memory, and about how memory in turn colors experience, how the mind, the sum of experience and memory, makes us dream, and say and do regrettable things, and honorable ones, too.

That process is replicated in the interwoven textures and images of McFarland's writing -- the supple rhythms of its sentences, the articulations of its strong, simple and intricate structure. "School for the Blind" is an extraordinarily well-written book, and in a very old-fashioned and satisfying way. It does not read like something punched into a word processor; like the best-loved novels of the past, it is full of voices, voices that create harmony and discord, voices that weave counterpoint. When Francis is lying ill, his nurse, Muriel's housekeeper Deirdre, reads a Maigret aloud to him. "School for the Blind" is a book meant to be read aloud, shared with someone you care about. It is a book in tune with itself that chimes in the resonant spaces of our common experience; every heart will return its echo.
--Richard Dyer, Boston Sunday Globe (May 22, 1994)


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