Singing Boy

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On the way home from dinner, Malcolm Vaughn is shot and killed in front of his family - the victim of a random act of violence. 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 reveals his profound pain and confusion. It will take time—and the support of Malcolm's best friend, Deckard, a Vietnam vet with troubles of his own—to help them ...

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Singing Boy: A Novel

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On the way home from dinner, Malcolm Vaughn is shot and killed in front of his family - the victim of a random act of violence. 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 reveals his profound pain and confusion. It will take time—and the support of Malcolm's best friend, Deckard, a Vietnam vet with troubles of his own—to help them understand the intracies of their sorrow.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
On a quiet night in suburban Massachusetts, eight-year-old Harry Vaughan watches helplessly as his father lies dying in the arms of his wife, Sarah, after being shot in the street by a total stranger. As in his bestselling novel The Music Room, Dennis McFarland's Singing Boy examines the shock and emotional devastation of losing a loved one. The Music Room's Martin Lambert, mourning the suicide of his brother, was ultimately able to heal his emotional wounds and move forward, to live, beginning again with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. But in Singing Boy McFarland, responding to feedback from readers of the first novel, wanted to honor our right "to be inconsolable, to claim as much time for grieving as she needed."
Melvin Jules Bukiet
I dislike suburban novels, novels involving domestic discontent, novels about decent people with terrible problems. Dennis McFarland's Singing Boy is nearly all these things. But it is extraordinary. Malcolm Vaughn - successful architect, loving husband and father - is driving home one night with his wife, Sarah, and their 8-year-old son, Harry. A car is stopped in front of him. The light changes. Malcolm beeps. The car remains still. Malcolm approaches it, taps on the window. The driver shoots him; he dies. The rest of the book follows Sarah, Harry and Malcolm's closest friend, Deckard Jones, in the aftermath of Malcolm's murder. 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 Vietnam; and Sarah sinks into a vortex of blackest grief. The relentlessness of its protagonist's depression makes Singing Boy remarkable. McFarland creates individual scenes of great tenderness - but he's at his best describing the tedious continuity of Sarah's nightmare.

McFarland has the courage to avoid contemporary feel-good nostrums and insist on the seriousness of both life and death. Singing Boy is not only a literary accomplishment; it's a human one.
Allegra Goodman
...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....This is the true plot movement ofSinging 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.
New York Times Book Review
Judith Warner
Grief appears, in this beautiful gasp of a book, to have a life of its own. It is caused by inexplicable, untoward events; it is eased by the same. It is so deep and so palpable that it envelops the reader like the quilts, blankets and sheets that Sarah and Harry keep wrapping over their shoulders.
Washington Post
Michiko Kakutani
...creates a wonderfully observed portrait of a family fractured and fragmented by grief...
New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Tragedy strikes quickly, and the memory of it fades slowly--that is the simple theme of this psychological drama by bestselling writer McFarland (The Music Room). Architect Malcolm Vaughn; his wife, Sarah; and their eight-year-old son, Harry, are driving home one night through suburban Boston when Malcolm gets out of the car to confront an erratic driver stopped at a red light and is shot and killed. At the hospital, Sarah calls Deckard Jones, Malcolm's best friend and a Vietnam veteran. These three principal characters, victims of shock and grief, find it impossible to cope with their loss. Sarah, trained as a scientist, refuses to return to her academic post as an instructor in chemical engineering. Harry's outward reaction, a bland insouciance, makes macho Deckard cry. But then Harry regresses to bed-wetting and is prone to nightmares, and Deckard suffers violent dreams that not only reflect the depression he suffered after Vietnam but bring back memories of his abusive father. Several minor characters--Sarah's estranged actress-mother Enid, unable to attend Malcolm's funeral because of a professional commitment, and sympathetic Detective Sanders, whose feelings for Sarah become personal--move the story along. The author is acutely sensitive to mourning's nuances of speech and to variation in motives, but humorous overtones temper the novel's somberness: Enid's mother is playing the part of Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals; Deckard remembers the cobra watching his Vietnam buddy's dramatic suicide and thinks that when it returns to the nest, none of the other snakes will believe the story it tells. Though one too many tropes of the literature of grief may be treated in the novel, McFarland tenderly addresses timeless issues of death and remembrance. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
McFarland, whose first novel, The Music Room, was a major best seller, again shows his remarkable skill in detailing human emotions and sorrow. One night, Malcolm, husband of Sarah and father of eight-year-old Harry, is shot to death in front of his horrified family. McFarland is a master at getting inside a character's thoughts: the chapter in which Sarah navigates the nightmare of hospital corridors, police questioning, and the trip to the morgue is grueling in its immediacy. We soon realize that Sarah and Harry have no emotional support network. Sarah, unable to resume her work as a chemistry professor at a prestigious Boston university, turns to Malcolm's best friend, Deckard, a black Vietnam vet and recovered drug addict. But for Deckard, Malcolm's murder stirs up not only grief but also painful flashbacks of war and an abusive childhood. As Sarah and Deckard's friendship becomes strained, Harry suffers through nightmares on his own. The novel can't sustain the emotional impact of the initial chapters, but its sophisticated and subtle analysis of each character's grief and resolution is compelling. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/00.]--Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
McFarland (The Music Room, 1990; A Face at the Window, 1997, etc.) plunges the reader into the maelstrom of grief that arises in the aftermath of the random murder of a college professor. Malcolm Vaughn is shot to death by a stranger on a suburban Boston street one night while his wife Sarah and eight-year-old son Harry look on. The killer gets away and, despite diligent police work, is never caught. From the hospital emergency room, Sarah calls Malcolm's best friend, a black Vietnam vet named Deckard Jones, whose checkered past initially causes suspicion to turn toward him and Sarah. But this is not a crime novel, and the scenes of police investigation and media exploitation feel forced. McFarland's real subject is grief, the deep and wide swath it cuts across his characters' lives, and the minute gradations of anxiety, anger, desperation, and guilt each experiences. The point of view shifts repeatedly, as if McFarland doesn't want us to miss a second of anyone's ordeal. Racked with self-blame and despair that takes the form of literal back pain, Sarah is both unable to work and unable to mother her son. As a result, her emotional paralysis forces Harry into an unnatural stoicism despite grotesque nightmares and an onslaught of secret bedwetting. Deckard's friendship with the Vaughns, especially with Harry, is intense (though the connection through Malcolm, explained late in the story, remains a contrivance), but his ability to offer real support is thwarted by his own crisis of memory activated by Malcolm's death. Deckard and Sara's relationship is wonderfully complex, platonic yet laden with misunderstandings born of well-meaning affection as Sarah gropes toward "abearable future." Slow-paced and heavy going at times but well worth reading for its profound and unsentimental exploration of the grieving process.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805066081
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/1/2001
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Dennis McFarland is the bestselling author of The Music Room, School for the Blind and A Face at the Window. His fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories and The New Yorker. He lives with his family in Massachussetts.

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Read an Excerpt

She'd been wrong to leave him so motherless in her grieving; she'd been right to make a change and bring him here; she'd been wrong to think she could cure him all by herself. She'd carried him only so far and now, apparently, they'd reached a plateau. It was as if there was medicine Harry still needed to take, so that he could get well, and she was still trying to figure out the proper dosage or the proper administration of it, what he would tolerate. Too much of the unspoken, too much of the unspeakable still lay beneath the surface of their daily life.

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Interviews & Essays

A Message from the Author

Dear Reader,

There is for me an important connection between Singing Boy and my first novel, The Music Room. In the earlier book, I told the story of a man whose brother jumped out a hotel room window and killed himself; through the shock of it, the surviving brother comes to terms with his own troubled past and eventually makes a new, better beginning. A short time after it was published, I received a letter from a woman whose son had actually jumped out a window and killed himself. She was angry at my playing into the notion that tragic loss somehow improves us; she said she was tired of friends and colleagues constantly looking at her for signs of progress. The letter shook me, and I never forgot it.

A few years later, a boy in my daughter's class at school was swept away by a riptide and drowned. It was an unthinkable tragedy, and when I talked with the mother, she said that one of the hardest parts of her grieving was the pressure of friends and family who wanted her to move past the loss, to get better, to get on with life. Meanwhile, what she wanted was for people to listen to her, to allow her as many tears as she needed to cry, and give her as much time as she needed.

I had these two women in mind as I developed the main character, Sarah, in Singing Boy. In the first chapter of the book, Sarah's husband is killed -- the victim of what is apparently random violence -- and in the aftermath, I wanted to honor Sarah's right to be inconsolable; I wanted to try to show that she was in fact "getting on" with life, but that her life would never be the same. I wanted to show that it's impossible to shape and pace grief through an effort of will. And I wanted to show how the beauty of the natural world can sometimes help people in their sorrow and sometimes help them to help each other.

My own son, who's just a bit older than the little boy in the novel, gave me the title for the new book. We'd recently moved into an apartment in a grand old building from the early 1900s. One night when he and I were home alone, he ran singing down the hallway, and as I caught up to him, I saw that he'd suddenly stopped in his tracks, just past the master bedroom. "Is there somebody in there?" he asked. I told him no, but he made me inspect the room to be sure. When I asked him why he'd thought somebody was there, he said he'd seen a man and that the man had called out to him. "What did he say?" I asked, and his answer, which he demonstrated in a convincing, hailing fashion, was, "Singing Boy."

I hope you like the new novel, and I know I speak for writers everywhere when I say thank you for reading and buying books.


Dennis McFarland

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Reading Group Guide

At the outset of this moving, luminous novel, Malcolm Vaughn, a successful architect in suburban Boston, is shot and killed in a random act of violence, an act witnessed by his wife Sarah and young son Harry. Sarah's grief in the prolonged aftermath of this horrid act is total and totally devastating. She is unsure of how to return to work, how to talk to policemen and teachers, how to live in a world that does not include her husband. Her grief is the primary dramatic action of this book; the reader learns human and emotional truths from the example of her catharsis. Harry, her bright, artistic eight-year-old son, is by contrast more grounded and functional in his sadness, although Sarah begins to wonder (as does the reader) if and when the boy might lose his grasp. And then there is Deckard-the best friend Malcolm left behind, a Vietnam vet, and a comforting presence to not only Sarah and Harry but several other characters. The reader is also comforted by Deck, who is friendly, generous, and rich in the wisdom of experience. But when Deck finds himself wrestling with both the strengths and shortcomings of his own memories, grief turns to panic as the narrative races to an engrossing resolution. Singing Boy is a vivid, perceptive, character-driven family tragedy, a story about the depths of sorrow, the mysteries of fate, and the personal as well as communal paths people must travel as they face these depths and mysteries.

Discussion Questions: 1. Singing Boy begins with a senseless, deplorable act of violence that sets the story in motion. A crime has been committed, but author Dennis McFarland's narrative is only remotely concerned with solving it. Why? Apart from the initial crime, identify the key questions or mysteries confronted by the book's main characters. How, if at all, are they answered or resolved?

2. Although the narration of the novel is in the third person, nearly all the events that transpire are rendered from one of three different perspectives. Whose perspectives are these? Also, how do these shifting perspectives-and the book's frequent switching of verb tense-reflect the mental, emotional, and psychological states of the characters themselves?

3. Why does Sarah refuse to visit a therapist? Her mother thinks it might be a good idea, but Sarah cannot be persuaded. Is Sarah being stubborn here, or does she have other reasons (and if so, what are they)?

4. Consider the character of Harry, the "singing boy" of this tale. Given the trauma he is experiencing, how do his thoughts, speech, and behavior reflect his young age?

5. If Sarah's foremost personal burden is grief (the long, dark maze of sorrow that comprises the main plot of the novel), and Deckard's is memory (either the unwanted kind or the vanishing kind), then what might be Harry's? Identify important imagery and dialogue from the text in support of your response.

6. Discuss the relationship between Sarah and Detective Sanders. How does it change over the course of the book? How does Sarah's overall view of the police change? And how, if at all, did reading this book alter your own view of police work -- the nature of it, the routine of it, the reality of it, and so forth?

7. Although Sarah has acted selfishly and stubbornly -- as she herself realizes and admits -- during so much of her grieving, she becomes convinced, about two-thirds of the way through the narrative, that she and Harry must retreat to her family's summer home. Neither Deckard nor Harry's principal consider this a wise move, but Sarah does it anyway. Why is she so adamant about making this trip? Be as specific as you can. And was it the right thing to do? Explain.

8. Toward the end of the novel, Deckard tells Harry about the "single question that saved [Deckard's] life." What exactly is this question? Who asked it, and why did it prove so potent, so fateful? And why is it significant that Deckard is now telling Harry of this secret question?

9. In one interview, discussing the manner in which he wrote this book, McFarland remarked: "I had to balance the grieving with some amount of wit. It's true to life that even in the depths of despair something will happen that will make us laugh." Cite places in the text where this is true.

10. Finally, how would you evaluate this novel as a portrayal of grief? If possible, refer to your own experiences of mourning, or those of someone close to you, to address the delicate subject matter of Singing Boy -- and how this subject is handled by the author. Did the novel thus strike you as accurate and/or convincing? Explain why or why not.

About the Author:
Dennis McFarland is the bestselling author of The Music Room, School for the Blind, and A Face at the Window. His fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories and The New Yorker. He lives with his family in Massachusetts.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 4, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    great read

    What a great book! It's been a bit of time since I've been able to pick up a book, and literally, not put it down, just giving myself in to a good story and losing myself in some wonderful characters. Right off the bat, with the murder of Sarah's husband, one is flung into the middle of a family full of grief, and then their way out. This one made me smile, cry, and also made me NOT want to close the book once I read it straight through. Keep it up, Dennis!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2002

    A Great Read

    Dennis McFarland's book 'Singing Boy,' is an emotional joyride that quickly pulls the reader in to the story and into the Vaughn household. Each charactor finds their voice and sense of humor through sarcaism and well-written dialogue.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2001

    A real chill, thats what this amazin book will give you

    This is one good book i havent seen such in a long time, i have a child, and i want to sell it, i am ready to give it up for a low price, i will buy as well

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2001


    As his debut novel, The Music Room (1990), garnered both critical and popular acclaim, Dennis McFarland soon found himself named among America's premier wordsmiths. His next two novels, most notably School For The Blind (1994), ensured his standing. 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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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Deep character study of people in mourning

    In the Boston area, Malcolm and Sarah Vaughn accompanied by their second grade son Harry were driving home from dinner when the Corvair in front of them sat at the green light, not once but twice. Malcolm went to see if the driver was okay, but was shot and killed for his Good Samaritan efforts. Harry and Sarah watch their beloved father and husband die in front of their shocked eyes. <P>The aftermath of the random act of violence stuns Sarah and Harry. At the hospital Sarah calls Malcolm¿s best friend Deckard Jones, who cannot cope any better than the two survivors. Sarah finds herself increasingly alone, as she cannot hide her grief in her work as a chemical engineering professor. Harry suffers nightmares that haunt him during the day hiding it with apathy and withdrawal while crying and wetting his bed at night. Deck returns to Nam where he seen death and suicide as the norm. The near future for this trio is at best bleak, helpless, and unrelenting, as they must cope with tragedy by themselves. <P> As he did with THE MUSIC ROOM, Dennis McFarland provides his audience with an angst-filled tale of what emotionally and psychologically happens to the survivors. The tragedy occurs in the first chapter with the main story line centering on how each individual copes (or in many cases, not deal with) the sudden death of a loved one. Although a bit too melodramatic at times as secondary players also suffer and react in various ways to Malcolm¿s murder, Mr. McFarland has written a superb psychological thriller that emphasizes the feelings not the action. <P>Harriet Klausner

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