Dennis McFarland


Singing Boy

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On their way home from dinner, Malcolm Vaughn is shot and killed in front of his family. Undone by shock and grief, his wife, Sarah, retreats from the world, postponing her return to work and their son Harry’s return to school. Harry appears to have come through the loss unscathed, until a troubling incident revels his profound pain and confusion. It will take time—and the support of Malcolm’s friend Deckard, a Vietnam war veteran with troubles of his own—to help them understand the intricacies of their sorrow.

Praise for Singing Boy

“Exquisite … The conflicts here, and their resolution, take place within the heart and mind.” –Allegra Goodman, The New York Times Book Review

“Affecting … [McFarland] creates a wonderfully observed portrait of a family fractured and fragmented by grief, their lives irrevocably divided into a before and after.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Hypnotic … [a] beautiful gasp of a book.” –Judith Warner, The Washington Post Book World

“No novel I’ve read in recent years conveys with greater accuracy, intensity, and artistry the agonies of grief … As with any work, of breathtaking prose, the effect is exhilarating rather than exhausting.” –Dan Cryer, Newsday

“A subtly wrenching, wryly unsentimental story … Beautifully evoking the volatile rhythms of mourning and recovery, Singing Boy strikes a stirring emotional chord.” –Megan Harlan, Entertainment Weekly

“Its emotional candor gives it an authenticity that feels trustworthy and makes its sorrows bearable … Excruciating in its blow-by-blow suffering, Singing Boy is finally just the opposite of that: a sad, sad success story that finally soothes.” –Gail Caldwell, The Boston Globe

“Extraordinary … remarkable … utterly convincing … Singing Boy is not only a literary accomplishment, it’s a human one.” –Melvin Jules Bukiet, Baltimore Sun

“Eloquent … McFarland does an impressive job of documenting the tentative steps and everyday rituals by which we recover from shock and loss and somehow get on with our lives.” –Francine Prose, Us Weekly

Singing Boy is a splendid novel … McFarland is one of those rare writers who can make the struggle to be good as engaging as the fall from grace.” –John Casey, author of Spartina

“Searing … McFarland is particularly adept at the small moments of which heartbreak is made: a shattered teapot; Sarah’s attempt to find solace in Malcolm’s closet; and her Brazilian housekeeper’s hard-edged efforts to nudge her into healing. ‘You have no light,’ the maid observes. But Singing Boy does.” –Joanne Kaufman, People

“Its sophisticated and subtle analysis of each character’s grief and resolution is compelling. Highly recommended.” –Library Journal

“The author is acutely sensitive to mourning’s nuances of speech and variation in motives, but humorous overtones temper the novel’s somberness … McFarland tenderly addresses timeless issues of death and remembrance.” –Publishers Weekly

Full reviews

LEFT BEHIND Dennis McFarland’s novel begins with the murder of a husband and father

A man is shot. The murderer speeds away into the night. But this is no murder mystery. As in life, the events in Dennis McFarland's exquisite new novel, ''Singing Boy,'' do not conform to formula. The police investigation falters. Clues lead nowhere. Malcolm Vaughn -- husband, father, architect -- was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, a victim of random violence. There is a mystery in this book, a far more interesting one than whodunit or even why. The mystery that Malcolm's wife, Sarah, his son, Harry, and his best friend, Deckard Jones, must solve is how to go on living after Malcolm's death. This question propels the novel, and the reader watches, in genuine suspense, the struggles of the three survivors.

A master of limited third-person narration, McFarland tells his story primarily from the points of view of Deckard and Sarah. A lab scientist in suburban Boston who is involved in ''tissue engineering research,'' Sarah is stunned by the loss of both her husband and the world as she knew it, and McFarland completely absorbs us in her efforts just to wake up and get from one place to another. ''She moves to the stove and puts on the kettle for another cup of tea. She stares at the gas flame, the fluid way it spreads beneath the kettle like the perpetual blooming of a great blue flower.''

Deckard, in contrast, is a black man who is an old hand at tragedy. A Vietnam veteran, he knows something about surviving bloodshed -- the flashbacks, the insomnia, the desire to self-medicate and thus forget. Deckard's loyalty to his friend's widow and son and his long sad experience would seem to make him a perfect guide for Sarah. Here again, however, McFarland rejects the neatly schematic for a subtler vision. Grief drives Sarah and Deckard apart, not closer together. Even -- perhaps especially -- in this therapeutic age when confession comes easily and talk is cheap, Sarah and Deckard struggle to find words for themselves and for each other. Silence threatens to overwhelm them, as it does Harry, an 8-year-old quieted by his father's death. Suddenly docile and eerily good, Harry frightens both Sarah and Deckard with his matter-of-fact devastation, his cool demeanor and agonized drawings. ''I have a question,'' he asks. ''Who invented guns?'' In its gravitas and curiosity, Harry's voice is exactly right.

Indeed, the language here is always apt, and always in tune with the characters' thoughts. McFarland has a gift for selecting details, so that we see this novel's world with remarkable intimacy. Through Deckard's lonely eyes, we see his apartment, the parking lot in front of his building, his spot at the admitting counter of the hospital where he works. We see Sarah's house and her lab with her own bewildered vision. By the time we arrive at her old family home and refuge on Cape Cod, we feel the safety in its worn floorboards and we are almost shocked by the colors in the garden and the sea. This is the true plot movement of ''Singing Boy'': an expanding, deepening vision for Deckard, Sarah, Harry and the reader. The conflicts here, and their resolution, take place within the heart and mind.

This internal focus is both a strength and a weakness. While McFarland grants us wonderful access to his three main characters, their world sometimes seems underpopulated. Secondary characters are sketchy at best. The detective assigned to the murder case, Forrest Sanders, remains an enigma -- a man in a suit, a man with a cell phone, a man with a wedding ring, then a man without a wedding ring awkwardly telling Sarah he likes her. Understandably, in Sarah's eyes he will always be only a messenger, the bearer of the worst news. As she says later, after Sanders takes himself off the case, she is far from even conceiving of a future relationship -- with him, or with anybody. And yet, it's disappointing to see Sanders returning again and again as nothing more than a stick figure -- even if he is just that to Sarah. At times, McFarland is perhaps too scrupulous in his limited point of view. Sanders is a device and not a man.

By the same token, Deckard's nemesis, a young black intern named Dr. French, is a straw man for Deckard's conflicted feelings about authority and privilege and the younger generation. And even when Dr. French tells Deckard, ''Believe me, Deck, from where I'm sitting, you look like a hero,'' the moment of understanding between the two men is not grounded in the kind of intimate detail McFarland lavishes elsewhere. Some of the secondary characters are literally phoned in. Deckard's ex-girlfriend, the mother of one of Harry's friends and, inexplicably, Sarah's own mother appear only as voices on the telephone. The reader can't help wondering about Sarah's mother, Enid, a stage actress with comically bracing ideas about moving on after tragedy. Enid and Sarah are supposed to be estranged, yet the degree of estrangement remains unclear. The rift must be great if Enid cannot fly to Boston for the funeral of her own daughter's murdered husband. Still, Enid feels close enough to the situation to call her daughter periodically to check in and give advice. ''This is what you've got to do, Sarah. . . . You've got to get somebody in. You make a detailed, thorough list, you take Harry to school, then you go downtown and spend the whole day shopping.''

Even if Enid cannot manage to cancel one performance to come to her son-in-law's funeral, even if she is brisk and self-absorbed, it is implausible that she never once visits her daughter and grandson in the following weeks and months. Enid seems like a lost opportunity. She and the other secondary characters wait in the wings. They might have had much to offer in the way of humor, pathos and interference, but McFarland walks them on only to rush them off again, leaving his book a purer, cleaner place.

Still, McFarland writes with such integrity about Sarah, Deckard and Harry that the reader can't help sharing their proud, exclusionary grief. Their actions are true. We care enormously about these people. They are utterly believable. We come to share their memories and confused thoughts. We follow Sarah in her dreamlike state. We feel Deckard's hurt. Above all, we come to experience the logic of mourning. We see how, even in tragedy, instinct preserves a sense of self and a sense of place in the world, as when Sarah takes Harry to ''the old house near the bay'' and Harry takes refuge in an attic bedroom, the family ''borning room'' under the eaves. We see how the body takes over when thought and speech fail. McFarland's view is focused, and it is also deep.

--Allegra Goodman, The New York Times Book Review (March 4, 2001)


“SINGING BOY” – the truth of tragedy

Here are some kinds of ostensibly literary, popular modern novels I dislike: suburban novels, novels involving domestic discontent, novels about decent people with terrible problems they don’t deserve.

Singing Boy,” by Dennis McFarland is nearly all of these things; the big difference between it and the genre it apparently belongs to is that it’s extraordinary.

The plot of “Singing Boy” is brutally simple. Malcolm Vaughn, a successful architect who restores historical buildings, a kind man, a loving husband and father, is driving home not especially late one night it his wife, Sarah, and their 8-year-old son Harry. A car is stopped at a traffic light in front of him. The light changes. Malcolm beeps. The car remains still, its driver maybe tired, maybe sick. Malcolm gets out of his car and taps at the window of the other car. That driver shoots him; he dies.

The rest of the book follows Sarah and Harry and Malcolm’s closet friend, Deckard Jones, in the aftermath of Malcolm’s murder. They are, of course devastated, their devastation exacerbated by the randomness of the crime. Yet each reacts in his or her own way. Harry retreats into a second grader’s obstinate normalcy though he does turn vegetarian and draws ominous pictures of flaming horses; Deckard remembers his time in Vietnam; and Sarah sinks into a vortex of blackest grief that remains for months. Her mother and her boss at the university where she works as a biotechnical researcher urge her to give up the grief, to seek the stupidest contemporary anodyne for pain, “closure.” Even the detective assigned to the fruitless case who has “reliable procedures to apply, an established protocol for analysis and interpretation: tries to help Sarah. He can’t; no one can. That’s what you call tragedy.

“Closure” is merely a synonym for blindness, and Sarah can’t stop seeing Malcolm dying in her arms. Whether it’s good for her or not, she doesn’t want closure; or, if she wants it, she can’t attain it.

The relentlessness of its protagonist’s depression makes “Singing Boy” remarkable. Maybe, maybe, maybe—whether your trauma is a function of communal genocide or individual loss—you eventually open a new door into another life, but if you have any love and respect for your past, you recognize that that other door is warped forever beyond closing.

McFarland creates individual scenes of great tenderness—Deckard taking Harry for a haircut at a barber shop filled with elderly black men—but he’s at his best when he describes the tedious continuity of Sarah’s nightmare. He gets at the nature of her experience in three ways. First, he physicalizes it, describing “a great scalding sensation in her ears” and “horrible disjointed spasms in her arms and shoulders.” Second, he uses images of frightening potency. In one place, her sorrow is analogized to “heavy black wings”; elsewhere it’s a “blinding-white geyser.” Lastly, contravening the simplistic writing school dictum “show, don’t tell,” he simply states, “life as she’d previously know it, along with a host of smug assumptions about rational progress and harmony, was over.”

McFarland has the courage to avoid contemporary fell-good nostrums and insist on the seriousness of both life and death. This makes his purely realistic portrayal utterly convincing. “Singing Boy” is not only a literary accomplishment; it’s a human one.”

--Melvin Jules Bukiet, The Baltimore Sun (March 4, 2001)


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