Singing Boy opens with a scene of absolute mundanity: A white, middle-class Boston family of three drives home from an evening out. Malcolm, an architect, is at the wheel of the Jeep wagon, wife Sara sits on the passenger side, and son Harry, a second-grader, is safely buckled in on the back seat. Soon enough, it's all shattered in an act of random and terrible violence. Malcolm lies dead in the street, victim of a gunshot, and Sara and Harry begin the task of re-creating their lives.
Singing Boy follows what's left of the family as they try to "get on with their lives" in the wake of their loss. Sara shuts down completely, refusing to re-enter the world. Harry struggles to make sense of anything, given his mother's condition and her reluctance to let him return to his normal routine. And Deckard, Malcolm's best friend, finds himself reliving his tour in Vietnam as he grapples with the fragility of human life.
Grief makes people feel alone, but they seldom are. Author Dennis McFarland (The Music Room) undermines the strength of his story by isolating his characters in an impossibly underpopulated landscape. In real life, family and friends usually swarm around the bereaved in an attempt at succor; in McFarland's world, Sara's mother is so unfeeling that she doesn't travel to her son-in-law's funeral, nor does she visit her grandson in the months following his father's death. (She does, however, call her daughter to taunt her on a regular basis.) Others--co-workers, the parents of Harry's friends, neighbors--appear either oblivious or unsympathetic to the point of hostility. The lack of other feeling characters makes McFarland's novel feel like a scientific study: How would the bereaved behave in a vacuum?
The only character that achieves flesh-and-blood status is Deckard, an African-American hospital orderly, recovering drug addict, and ex-con. (We're asked to believe that Deckard and Malcolm are "best" friends, yet considering their divergent backgrounds and stations in life, this strains credulity.) McFarland reserves his best writing for the scenes told from Deckard's point of view, but he misuses his skill: Too often, the events of Deckard's life build to a storm of emotional intensity that simply goes nowhere. McFarland has the ability to make his readers cry, but his beautiful writing is often emotionally bankrupt.
McFarland is such a gifted writer that you might not realize just how manipulative this book is. His gentle, elegant style hides the fact that there's no soul to this work, no deeper understanding of grief and loss, no enhanced empathy that readers can carry into their own lives. The Singing Boy is a tearjerker disguised as a thoughtful meditation on grief.