A voyage of self-discovery that continues into old age

June 26, 1994|By Joan Mooney

One reason that it is a pleasure to read Dennis McFarland's second novel is that the two main characters are astonishly self-perceptive. Muriel and Frank Brimm, a sister and brother in their 80s, will often surprise you with their insights, and this makes them good company.

Brimm, as Frank is called, has recently moved back to the small Florida town where he and Muriel grew up, and where she has lived all her life. While she spent 40 years as librarian at the Raphael School for the Blind, he traveled the world as a photographer, never staying in one place for long.

Early in the book, Brimm discovers the bones of a dead human buried on the golf course behind his house. Looking for the murderer is a central part of the plot, but McFarland's books are not about events; they are about emotions and characters coming to understand themselves. "School for the Blind" is a voyage of self-discovery for both Muriel and Brimm.

Perhaps inured by old age, these two have an uncanny ability to look at themselves from the outside and to face unpleasant truths that were not clear to them earlier in life. Neither married, and now they find they are lonely, a state that lends itself in their minds to unappealing stereotypes of the elderly. "Wasn't it, after all, shameful to be lonely?" Brimm thinks. "Shameful to have ended up lonely?"

Mr. McFarland's ability to penetrate the thoughts of the elderly is the book's greatest strength. He understands the foibles and irritations of old age and has the remarkable ability to laugh at his characters a little -- they laugh at themselves -- even while showing sympathy for them.

Mr. McFarland also understands how the elderly, themselves outcasts, can often connect with society's other outcasts. Muriel loses patience with Ned and Billie, her neighbors and friends of 50 years -- perhaps because they have made no changes in their lives, while she is learning something new about herself every day. But both she and her brother become close to Deirdre, a pregnant, unmarried 19-year-old who is perceptive beyond her years. And Muriel becomes friends with Connie Shoulders, a young black policeman in the town's mostly white police force.

The complex relationship between Muriel and Brimm is handled well. Though they have spent most of their lives apart, they endured the same dreadful childhood and have a kind of telepathic connection. They can recall incidents of 30 years ago with some of the same resentments still brewing. They have the kind of understanding that allows Brimm to say to Muriel, "Why wouldn't Father let us go to the beach that afternoon?" and she knows without asking that he means a particular day in 1928.

During the course of the book, Brimm begins to understand what he has been running from all his life, as Muriel probes into her own memories of the past.

In the last part of the novel, Mr. McFarland does an astonishingly good job at conveying the thoughts and feelings of a dying man. Appropriately for this character, he deals with death unsentimentally, as something for which, though inevitable and in this case anticipated, no one can be fully prepared. Brimm thinks about death with detachment, as he has in large part viewed his life. We have a real sense of him fading away into a dream world, remembering parts of his life.

"School for the Blind" is a tour de force. The characters are likable and thoughtful, and McFarland writes about them sympathetically, but with a sense of life's ironies -- a rare and wonderful combination.

Ms. Mooney is a writer who lives in Washington.

Title: "School for the Blind"

Author: Dennis McFarland

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Length, price: 287 pages, $21.95

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