Readers anticipate this author's supple, compelling prose. Such expectations are fulfilled with Singing Boy, a poignant exposition of grief in which Mr. McFarland again touches upon his recurring themes of death, forgiveness, and the mercy of time.
Following a dinner at which he has been honored, Malcolm Vaughn, with his wife, Sarah, and Harry, their eight-year-old son, is driving home through a quiet Massachusetts night. Malcolm's attention is caught by an old Corvair blocking their passage through an intersection. When he goes to investigate, he is shot and killed by the Corvair's driver, a stranger. Harry watches as his father is slain, and Sarah cradles her husband as he bleeds to death on the street.
Upon arriving at the hospital, Sarah calls Deckard Jones, a black Vietnam war veteran, who is Malcolm's best friend. Deck, as he is called, is approaching fifty. He has spent time in a detox unit, is haunted by the horrors of wartime carnage, and has recently lost his girlfriend. His life, it seems, is going fast but headed nowhere.
"Spontaneous murder," according to the police, is the classification for Malcolm's death. However, this is not the story of a crime but a powerful tale of how three bereaved souls respond to tragedy. Each retreats in a different way, unable to contemplate let alone cope with their shock and grief.
Sarah, a chemical engineer, is immobilized, incapable of decision making, unable to offer Harry parental affirmation, even a modicum of guidance.
Of Sarah Mr. McFarland writes, "No one will understand that her grief is what she has left of him, and if she were to lose that, she would have nothing at all."
Young Harry conceals his trauma behind a mask of normalcy - he doesn't cry, he speaks politely when spoken to, reiterating that he is fine.
In analyzing Harry's behavior, Deckard concludes, "There was something too smooth about it, too business-as-usual, too no-problem."
Confronted with a grieving Sarah whom he is trying to nudge in a "back-to-normal direction" and a child who seems so extremely normal that it's worrisome, Deckard assumes the role of protector, repressing his mourning for a friend's death until personal crises threaten to pull him under.
Related with truthfulness and compassion the struggles of three people become a reflection of our own periods of loss. Many can relate to the words Harry utters as an adult: he remembers the summer of his father's death as a time when "he'd learned the word 'inconsolable,' and what a deep deep well of a word it was."
Mr. McFarland has said that in this story he wanted to honor Sarah's "right to be inconsolable, her right for claiming as much time for grieving as she needed......I wanted to show that it's impossible to shape and pace grief through an effort of will."
He has accomplished this with with grace and beauty. For this we are grateful.
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While not without it's flaws, like the implausible all too simple liquidation of our main character's business interests, the story is still strong.
Read it and reflect.
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