'Singing Boy' -- the truth of tragedy

March 04, 2001|By Melvin Jules Bukiet | By Melvin Jules Bukiet,Special to the Sun

"Singing Boy," by Dennis McFarland. Henry Holt. 309 pages. $25.

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 with 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. The driver shoots him; he dies.

The rest of the book follows Sarah and Harry and Malcolm's closest 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 known it, along with a host of smug assumptions about rational progress and harmony, was over."

McFarland has the courage to avoid contemporary feel-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's most recent novels are "After" and "Signs and Wonders." His next, "Strange Fire," is forthcoming this spring from W.W. Norton. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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