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Author Biography: DENNIS MCFARLAND is an award-winning author, whose novels include School for the Blind, A Face at the Window and his latest novel Singing Boy (Henry Holt). He lives near Boston with his wife and two children.
"Sensitive...Expertly crafted...A novel whose details continue to reverberate long after one has finished the book." —Joseph Olshan, Chicago Tribune
"[An] enormous pleasure. Along the way would crop up sentences, sometimes merely a word, that would make me catch my breath." —Eudory Welty
"Brilliant...Rich...Reminiscent of both Fitzgerald's lyricism and Kafka's estrangement." —The Washington Post
"An amazing novel....Its precision of language and the haunting beauty of its figures is such as to be unforgettable." —Walker Percy
In the bicentennial year of our country's independence from Great Britain, a time when I imagined the American masses celebrative and awash with a sense of history and continuity, my wife of only four years decided it would be best for both of us if she moved in with her mother for a while -a trial separation, she said, though we both were so immediately relieved by the idea of parting, the real thing was bound to endure. In October of the previous year, she had suffered her second miscarriage-this one quite far along (almost six months); we'd begun to breathe easy, we'd begun decorating a nursery-and afterward, we succumbed to a stubborn disappointment that refused forgiveness, refused sexual and emotional healing. There had never been anything in our marriage quite as coherent as this two-headed tragedy. Madeline left for Santa Rosa in February, a rainy, blossoming-of-spring month in northern California.
By the following August, I had decided to give up our large flat in San Francisco, where I remained, a rambling monk with only random visitation rights to my past. The place, the flat, was a daily encounter with guilt and failure, and though I knew enough not to believe in geographical cures for those conditions, that didn't make me any less eager to escape its sinister Victorian charm. What Madeline didn't have any use for in Santa Rosa I put into storage. I arranged for an absence from my record company, where things had long run better without me anyway. I thought I would travel for a few weeks, perhaps visit my brother in New York. I imagined that on my return I might find better, altogether different living quarters-a houseboat in Sausalito perhaps, a geodesic dome on Mount Tam.
My landlady had told me I should leave the flat "broom clean," a task for which I'd kept a vacuum cleaner behind. In the unused nursery there were cobwebs, and on the walls and ceiling about a hundred self-adhesive stars and moons that glowed in the dark (better than any real starlit sky the night I brought my pregnant wife into the room and switched off the light to show her my handmade heaven). As I vacuumed away the cobwebs, I discovered that the little stars and moons had become dry over the months, and when I passed the vacuum across the surface of the wall, they let go easily. This was just the sort of thing I needed, the sort of thing I'd been needing for weeks. And as I stood there sucking the stars and moons from the nursery walls, and crying like a baby myself, the phone rang in the kitchen: a detective with the New York City police department's homicide unit, informing me that early that morning my brother, Perry, had fallen to his death from the twenty-third floor of a midtown hotel, apparently a suicide.
Stupidly, I asked the man to hold the line for a moment. I returned to the nursery, then moved to the French windows that overlooked the garden. On the south fence, a hummingbird darted in and out of a passionflower vine, and in a distant window, across the length of two gardens, I could see a young nurse in white uniform and cap; I waved to her, but quite sensibly she didn't wave back, and moved away out of sight. When I returned to the kitchen, I saw that the receiver of the cardinal-red telephone lay on the bare floor. I picked it up and spoke into it. I relied on extreme politeness to get through the rest of the conversation. I told the detective how very sorry I was to have kept him waiting and would he be kind enough to tell me his name again, his precinct, and yes, I would be coming to New York on the first flight, thanks very much for letting me know about my brother.
For a minute after hanging up, I wondered why Perry hadn't thought of me. Not why hadn't he thought of me as someone to turn to, but why hadn't he chosen a better time to do himself in, a time when I didn't already have troubles enough. And as punishment for this moment of weakness, I then recalled that Perry had left a message on my answering machine a few weeks earlier-nothing special, just hello, like to talk to you-and I'd never got around to returning the call. At that point I had made the decision to give up the flat, which was really a decision to overturn what I currently, loosely called my life, and Perry was not a soothing influence. I loved him, and I couldn't have named some of the deep and thorough ways in which I depended on him,.but he was not a soothing influence.
What immediately followed the New York detective's phone call was a lot of practical arrangements-securing a flight and a hotel reservation, disposing of the vacuum cleaner, leaving the key to the flat with the landlady, dispensing with my car, turning off the telephone service, ordering transportation to the airport-and at some point during all this-maybe it was when I saw my two alreadypacked suitcases standing near the entry hall door -I thought, Sensible people don't allow themselves ever to become this unmoored, they don't allow themselves to reach so frayed a loose end. And why? Because it's very likely that fate will rush in with some great calamity to give new purpose to your life. And for a while, as I sat in the smoky, upholstered cabin of a 747, flying toward the details of my only brother's spattered remains on some grimy patch of pavement in New York City, I actually thought that perhaps I'd developed an interesting life view these last couple of hours. I drank two miniatures of Dewar's Scotch on an empty stomach, and pictured Fate in the style of an editorial drawing-not as the name for what befalls you in life, but as a grisly beast with a thousand eyes, lurking behind a large rock or tree: the landscape is Western, arid (I'm not sure why); you pass by on an ambling horse; Fate, in his hiding place, waits for you to let go, even momentarily, of the reins. It wasn't until we'd begun our descent into Kennedy that I understood what a crock all this thinking was, what a soft, mushy swamp I'd let my mind become lately-that primarily, at least, what had happened today had happened to Perry and not to me.
My flight had left San Francisco at eight-thirty in the evening, which put me into New York at the exotic hour of five in the morning. My cab driver was a black woman in her forties, six feet tall, dressed in a khaki jump suit, her straightened hair dyed orange and trained into a severe flip on one side. In a professional gospel singer's voice, she sang a soulful "Bright Lights, Big City" on the way into town, and at first I thought she was putting me on, that the song was meant as counterpoint to the heaviness of her foot on the accelerator and the casual, abandoned way in which she frequently changed lanes. But something in her singing-probably simply how amazingly good it was-told me that she was listening to herself, that I wasn't on her mind in the least.
On the metal frame encasing the Plexiglas protective barrier between us, someone, a former fare perhaps, had scratched into the black enamel, "Boys are my whole life." I assumed this had been written by a teen-aged girl (though surely this was not necessarily the case), and I thought of Perry at fifteen, a precocious fifteen but fifteen all the same, and me, nineteen and home from my sophomore year of college.
It's a moonless summer night on one of the Spring Lake beaches on the Jersey Shore. Somebody whose parents are in Europe for the month of August is having a big house party, one of those parties where the host, whoever he is, has invited his friends and told his friends to invite their friends, and so on. The resulting mixture of booze and partial anonymity has fallen like a gauze over everything at this late hour, and there's something decidedly permissive in the sound of the surf and the wind. I haven't seen Perry for a couple of hours, and Jeanine Clotfelter, my date for the party, has urged me a few times to go find him. I'm older and should be looking out for him. I tell Jeanine that she shouldn't be such a worrier, it's not good for her skin.
As someone throws more driftwood onto a huge bonfire on the beach, twisted screens of sparks fly up, are caught by the wind, and die. Someone plays white, city-kid blues on a guitar. Couples stroll away and are swallowed up by the blackness outside the circle of the fire. Couples return arm in arm. Small groups, mostly of boys, leave-somebody's got dope-and return. Many of the girls and boys are darkly tanned. The sharp smells of the fire and of the sea air dominate, but underneath, there are the sweeter, more tribal odors of coconut oil, cocoa butter, baby oil and iodine.
Shortly after my remark about Jeanine Clotfelter's skin, a younger girl, a Cindy somebody, shows up in the bright glow of the bonfire looking desperate, her cheeks streaked with tears. Jeanine, secretly happy to have arrived at some version of the melodrama she's been imagining ever since Perry's disappearance, finds Cindy's arm and pulls her over to where we are sitting. Lassielike, Cindy manages to convey, not entirely verbally, that something terrible has happened, that we should follow her to the spot.
A half mile or so down the beach there's an old abandoned dirt road with a washed-out bridge; it's about an eight- or ten-foot drop down into a sand gully. Some of the wilder boys have been playing a little game, a daredevil's delight, for which Perry has been kind enough to lend our father's Lincoln. On our way to the abandoned road, Cindy explains-as best she can, for she's still crying-the game. The player sits behind the steering wheel of the Lincoln from a starting place of about a hundred yards from the washed-out bridge; with the headlights on bright, the player drives toward the gully; at about fifty yards-indicated by a boy stationed by the edge of the road-the driver turns off the headlights and, in complete darkness, continues forward as far as he dares. Naturally, the one who gets closest to the gully, without driving into the gully, wins.
Cindy, frantic and hysterical, came running to fetch us just when Perry was taking the wheel. But when we arrive on the scene, the game has reached its end-apparently only a moment earlier. With its headlights turned back on, Father's Lincoln squats like a big boat, no wheels visible, in the sand at the bottom of the gully; a great cloud of dust still rises and settles in the swathes of light in front of the car. The circle of boys surrounding the Lincoln is completely silent when we arrive, and they silently clear a path for us as we approach. When I lean down to look inside the window on the driver's side, I see Perry -Perry, with a look of miraculous wonder on his face. What has happened has left him quite speechless. His silence, like the other boys', is almost religious. He looks at me and smiles, shaking his head, his eyes wet with tears of joy. I say, "Jesus, are you in trouble now . . ."
Of course I have failed to understand the moment, the event, and Perry is cosmically disappointed. He continues shaking his head, but his expression has changed to disgust. Then he says, quietly, which was always his way, "At least 1 know what kind of trouble I'm in, Martin."
Now, in the taxi, my recalling Perry's young face, full of wonder, sent a brief but incisive jab of grief to my ribs, and my cab driver, as if she were tracking my thoughts, began to hum, a different song, a melody I didn't recognize, something altogether too melancholy. It occurred to me to tell her that my brother had just jumped out of a hotel window. After all, I hadn't said those words out loud yet, and it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to experiment; I suspected that as a cab driver in New York City she. knew something of grief. We were just passing through the toll plaza outside the Midtown Tunnel, the sky had brightened enough to cast an ambiguous glow over everything-not day, not night-and the man who took the money, middle-aged with a droopy mustache and dark pouches beneath his eyes, looked sad and hopeless to me. One too many nights in the neon-lit toll booth.
I closed my eyes: the briefly pleasant, stinging scent of exhaust fumes; the underground roar, like entering the whirling channel inside a giant conch shell. When I opened my eyes maybe a minute later, the interior of the cab had taken on an unsettling domestic look, and in the artificial lights of the tunnel, I noticed that my driver, no longer singing or humming, was glancing at me occasionally in her rearview mirror. After another quick series of curious glances, she said, "If you're cold back there, why don't you roll up the window?"
As I cranked the window handle, which was missing its plastic knob, I realized that I was visibly shaking, which triggered my awareness of a string of neglected physical needs: freezing coldness, hunger, and a by now completely bewildered bladder. The tall black woman nodded approvingly. I thought, judging only from her eyes, that she was also smiling. I cleared my throat and said, "I've had to come here because my brother just died suddenly."
"I beg your pardon?" she said, and I noticed that she had a surprisingly cultured note in her speech, as if she'd been trained in the theater.
"I said my brother just died."
"Oh, that's too bad," she said. "Was he sick?"
"No," I said. "He killed himself."
"What a crying shame," she said. Then she added, quite without astonishment, "I had a brother killed himself, too."
"That's amazing," I said.
Out of the tunnel-only a nod to any transition at best-we were suddenly aimed at the heart of Manhattan. "Wasn't anything amazing about it," my cab driver said, hanging a onehanded right turn that sent me teetering. "I expect just about anybody can blow their own brains out given the right circumstances-and the bottle and the gun."
"I mean, isn't it amazing that here I am all the way from California," I said, "riding in the back seat of your cab, and we both have brothers who killed themselves."
"Oh," she said, as unimpressed as only someone shrugging such wide and bony shoulders could be. "Just goes to show you, I guess."
She'd begun a lively game of dodge and dart up Park Avenue. There was a surprising amount of traffic at this hour and an assortment of drivers-a kind of estuary of the decadent and the ambitious.
Uptown, in the seventies, over to Fifth, down a couple of blocks, and we were stopped in front of my hotel. I had purposely avoided staying in midtown, frightened by the remote possibility of booking a room, by freakish coincidence, in the hotel. As I stood outside on the sidewalk, at the rear of the taxi, reaching into my pockets for cash, the cab driver retrieved my bags from the trunk and handed them over to a uniformed doorman. When she told me the amount of the fare, I paid it, along with a tip, and then said, "I thought the fare would be at least-"
"I turned off the meter when you told me about your brother," she said, and as if I weren't already surprised enough, she took both my hands into hers, which were huge and soft and warm.
In a moment, I would have to turn toward the hotel's bright revolving doors at the end of a long arched canopy with brass poles and fittings, and toward an entirely stunned doorman; but just now, I was held firm in the grip of this unlikely navigator's sympathy-her ridiculous orange hair now clearly a wig, she herself now clearly a drag queen. And it must have bolstered. me, because after she drove away I was able to ask the waiting doorman, without a trace of embarrassment, to hurry please and show me to the nearest men's room.
After a hot bath in a wonderful, cavernous old tub, I ordered room service. Knowing I should keep it simple, I asked for scrambled eggs and an English muffin, tea instead of coffee, no meat. But when it arrived, caddied by a cheerful young man who clicked his heels after he'd set everything out for my approval, it was not quite simple enough. Though I'm sure the eggs were perfectly fine, they looked like something that might have grown at the bottom of a fish tank. I quickly recovered everything as soon as the porter left the room.
Wearing a robe made of some unseemly shiny material, an anniversary present from Madeline-her favorite old actor was David Niven-I sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the telephone. After a minute or two I went to the windows, which, at the back of the hotel, overlooked a jagged sea of rooftops. I drew the drapes, hoping to shut out the city at least temporarily, and returned to my thinker's attitude on the edge of the bed: if there were a way to erase memory, to escape the resonant sway of the past, then calling my mother and telling her about Perry would be a simpler task. What I wanted was some way to unclutter the thing. I wanted it to be tidy, without echo. Already, as I imagined my mother's voice, I was having to shake the absurd feeling that I was the tattletale, calling long distance to report Perry's having been bad again. And in a vaguer sort of way, I felt some mysterious allegiance to Perry that excluded any grief sharing with our mother. I also needed very badly to sleep -I felt overwrought with fatigue rather than used up.
It was nearly eight o'clock, but I knew Mother to be an early riser these days. I put through the call to Norfolk, and Raymond, the aging houseboy, answered. "It's Martin," I said, and we exchanged a few banalities about how long it had been since my last visit and so on. He told me that Mother was already in the pool. "She's a fanatic about her morning exercise, you know," he said. "Hold on a second, Marty, and I'll just take the phone out to her."
I could hear the sounds of a television, a morning news program, then the yapping of the dogs, a screen door slamming, and Raymond again, calling to Mother. When she came on the line, Mother was using her expansive, outdoor voice. "Marty," she said. "It's so early for you."
"Mother, I'm calling from New York," I said.
"Yes. I'm afraid I've got some bad news."
"It's about Perry."
"Will you please stop doing that," I said.
"Repeating everything back to me. I'm trying to tell you that Perry's had an accident."
"An accident?" she said.
"I don't know any other way to do this," I said, "except to say it, Mother. Perry's dead."
There was a brief silence, then the splash of water, then her voice, away from the phone now: "Raymond, honey, will you please hand me my robe?" "Mother?" I said.
"Yes, Marty, I'm here. I'm just trying to catch my breath. What happened?"
"I only just got into a hotel," I said. "I don't have any details yet, but the police think Perry killed himself."
Another silence. Then, "I'm all right, Marty, I'm all right. Tell me what to do. I don't know what to do."
"I don't really know anything yet," I said. "I think the thing to do is just sit tight and I'll keep in touch."
"I don't know what to do," she said after a moment. "Tell me what I should do."
"It's very hard to know," I said. "It's a shock."
"A shock?" she said. "Is that what you call it? How did he do it? Jump out of a window or something? Something magnificent, surely . . ."
"Yes," I said.
"Yes, he jumped out of a window."
"Oh, God. Oh, Marty, why?"
"I don't know," I said. "I'm going to try to find out." "Oh, Jesus."
"I just feel, I don't know . . . why would he do such a thing?"
"I don't know, Mother," I said. "When did you talk to him last?"
"Well, I'm not sure. I don't have any idea why he did it, if that's what you're getting at."
"I'm not getting at anything, Mother. I just wondered whether or not you talked to him recently."
"I think Raymond talked to him," she said. "He called once when I was away, a couple of weeks ago. He talked to Raymond." "When was that exactly?" I asked.
"Well, let's see," she said. "I was in Palm Beach. That would have been about ten days ago, I guess. Oh, Jesus, why can't I cry?"
"Mother, will you tell Raymond what's happened and have him call me?"
"Of course," she answered. "But you know Raymond's memory isn't what it used to be."
I gave her the number of the hotel and my room number.
She said, "Marty . . ."
After a moment she said, "I don't know what I was going to say."
"I'll call you later," I said.
"I've got people coming for lunch," she said. "Raymond's in the kitchen shelling shrimp."
And then, after a pause, she said one word, flat, without inflection: "Perry." After she'd hung up, I sat listening to the clinking chains and wind tunnels over the line, a primitivesounding music that seemed to darken the already half-dark hotel room.
Perry and I are young boys, maybe nine and five, lying belly-down on the gentle slope of the front lawn to the Norfolk house. Once again nighttime, summer. We can hear music coming from Father's old console radio in the librarySinatra, something swingy. It's the hour that lies between dinner and bedtime; the help (as we were taught to call them, never servants) are gathered in the kitchen drinking coffee and cleaning up the dinner mess; it is a blissful hour in which, for once, during a long day of grown-up guesswork and petulance, Perry and I are precisely what we most want to beforgotten. It is our chance to observe unobserved, for us to spin out a commentary unchecked by adult censure. But now we are mute as we lie on the grass in the dark, watching the broad, glowing French windows of the library. Inside, our parents, Father in his dark suit and Mother in a long gown, are dancing, and though their laughter sails above and below the music, as they lose and regain their footing again and again, they look as if they are wrestling: Mother, whirling, collapses onto a sofa, Father jerks her erect, they both fall against a desk, sending a lamp crashing to the floor., and their immense shadows break across the library ceiling. It's a spectacular thing, and vaguely frightening, and when I turn to Perry, I see no mixture of emotions on his face. He likes it very much.
"Reading The Music Room is like listening to Mozart," wrote Stephanie Vaughn, a professor of creative writing at Cornell University. "It's the kind of book you press into people's hands, telling them if they don't read it you'll never speak to them again," gushed Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. "Along the way would crop up sentences, sometimes merely a word," said Eudora Welty, "that would make me catch my breath." Dennis McFarland earned such distinguished accolades, rave reviews in all of the major publications, a spot on the New York Times bestseller list and a cover story in the New York Times Book Review when The Music Room was first published in 1990. Since then, his first novel has gone on to become a classic.
1. Identify the emotional conflicts in The Music Room. How do these conflicts relate to ones in our daily lives?
2. In the first chapter, Martin has a memory of a beach party, where Perry, involved in a daredevil game, wrecks the family car. What do you think is the significance of this memory? What does the incident reveal about the Lambert family dynamics?
3. Describe the relationship between Martin and Jane Owlcaster. What are the various stages it goes through? Why do they become involved so quickly, and why does Jane ultimately reject a romantic connection with Martin?
4. Self-destructiveness is an important theme throughout the novel. Discuss how this theme manifests itself in the principal characters, and how self-destructiveness becomes Martin and Perry's inheritance. Does Martin overcome this tendency in himself?
5. What does Martin and Perry's parents' behavior say about our culture's attitudes toward children?
6. Flannery O'Connor once said that anybody who has survived childhood has enough material to last them the rest of their lives. How do Martin and Perry replicate their childhood experiences in their adult lives?
7. How are Martin's dreams significant to the novel?
8. How does a knowledge of music and music composition effect the structure of The Music Room?
9. In the last fourth of the novel, when Martin spends time alone in his family home, he remembers events that have already been recalled earlier in the novel. What is the psychological significance of his revisiting these memories? How is his experience of them different this time around? What new insight does he discover?
10. What do you think the primary dramatic climax of the story is?
11. Do you feel sympathy for Martin and Perry's mother, Helen? Why, or why not? What pains do you think the author has taken to make her a three-dimensional character?
12. Perry's suicide is a kind of wake-up call for Martin; by the end of the novel, Martin has been forced to examine and start to change the course of his own life. How do you feel about this story in which one character appears to benefit from the tragic death of another character? Does this strategy reflect real life?
13. Why do you think Perry killed himself?
About the Author:
In 1975, Dennis McFarland graduated from Brooklyn College with a bachelor's degree in music composition. Unexpectedly, he found more satisfaction in writing about musical talent than in writing music. The principal characters in his bestselling first novel The Music Room are united by a close connection to music: Martin Lambert runs a small recording company in San Francisco; his younger brother, Perry, was pursuing a career as a composer before he committed suicide; and their father, a failed pianist, is frequently found drinking himself into a stupor and "annihilating a Beethoven sonata" in the family's stately Virginia home. Dennis McFarland's other novels include School for the Blind, A Face at the Window, and his latest novel, Singing Boy (Henry Holt). He lives near Boston with his wife and two children.