In 1975, the piano student graduated from Brooklyn College with a bachelor's degree in music -- and a cynical aversion to it. Gripped by stage fright, he glimpsed an alternative in the wings: a dimly lit, sequestered world of words. Gingerly he stepped in.
Now, after 15 difficult years in the shadows, Dennis McFarland has stepped out with a first novel, "The Music Room." Nervous at first, he has heard little but applause.
"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."
McFarland attributes these paeans to "a lot of good luck, a beautiful cover, a wonderful editor and wonderful reviews." And his tone does not sound like a put-on air of nonchalance.
It is the response of a writer who grew up in Mobile, Ala., at the height of the civil rights struggle and saw the "harsh cruelty in the South," who "floundered" in life before settling down to writing, who knows that "persistence is an awful lot of the game, more than talent," and seems bewildered at the resonance of the chord his words have struck in the hearts of readers.
"They write to me saying that they have found the book touching," says McFarland. "It's about a family with enormous troubles, and I think an enormous number of people walking on the face of the earth today can relate to a family with troubles."
"The Music Room" is also about individual suffering, about a painful history that makes the present more enjoyable, not only by contrast but also thanks to time's tender touch. While it resounds with death's Stygian tones, the book celebrates the victory of a conscience forged in suffering.
Though McFarland portrays a wealthy family of alcoholic parents, the skeins of conflict in the story are the ones we unravel in our daily lives. This, the critics say, has made "The Music Room" successfully cross that imaginary line between literary achievement and popular acclaim.
"I am very surprised that a book which was perceived by my agent and publisher as a 'literary' work is so popular," says McFarland. "I think it's because everyone has a family, everyone has been a child, and hence, they can identify themselves with the story. None of the characters or events in the book is autobiographical," he says, though "I think the emotional life to the book is very autobiographical, the feelings in the book belong to me."
For McFarland, writers "can always create events, but creating an emotional life in the character is something you draw from your own experience."
In some ways, the novel is an echo of the 41-year-old author's own struggle. "A majority of people who end up being writers are those who have a love for literature, who have spent a majority of their time reading and writing. I'm not an avid or a voracious reader. I became a writer because it was the only thing I could do by myself without an audience sitting in front of me," says McFarland. To that end, he enrolled in the graduate creative writing program at Goddard College in Vermont and in 1981 went to Stanford University as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in creative writing, where he taught for five years.
"I put all my energy into teaching," says McFarland, "but I had a feeling that my career was going nowhere." He realized that writers who get their strength from anonymity do need institutional sanction and when the New Yorker, which had published his first story, "lost interest" in his works, McFarland says he was "bitter and very unhappy."
And then "something clicked for me."
"I had this mistaken notion that somehow if I could become a successful writer, I would be happy, that being successful would fix me," McFarland remembers. And then "somewhere along the way, I came to the realization that I had to fix myself. I couldn't be looking to the outside to correct what was making me embittered."
Therapy followed, and McFarland says that as soon as he "miraculously let go of a lot of feelings about wanting to be a successful writer, I could focus on the writing. I decided that no matter what, I wouldn't quit." With this "iron-clad decision" in place, McFarland began writing "The Music Room" two years ago.
Today, on the strength of the acclaim for "The Music Room," he has a movie contract that has "given me the freedom to put off teaching for a year" (at Emerson College in Boston) "and focus on my second novel." While McFarland basks in this new luxury, he confesses that the shadowy fears of an aspiring writer always haunted him while he was writing "The Music Room."
"I would find my mind drifting to thoughts like: How successful is the book going to be? How much money is it going to make? But every time it happened, I would try to bring my focus back to writing because that was the only way to do it," says McFarland.
Helping him along the way was his wife, poet Michelle Simons, his "first critic," whom he met in 1982 at Goddard. McFarland says it was his wife's support that enabled him, to a large measure, to pull himself through. "We have changed over the years in complementary ways," says McFarland, admitting that "we both reached a point where we had to come to terms, in our own separate ways, with alcohol. We had spent too many years drinking too much. Also, we came to have a simultaneous interest in a spiritual life."
This personal victory over self-destruction is the theme of "The Music Room." The novel begins on an elegiac note that draws the reader into the brooding yet mysteriously seductive world of the protagonist, 29-year-old Martin Lambert: "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."
A page later, with the memory of his wife and her two miscarriages painfully fresh, Lambert is struck by the transience of his world when he is vacuuming the never-used nursery of his San Francisco apartment. There, glittering through the cobwebs, is his "handmade heaven: a hundred self-adhesive stars and moons." When suddenly the cymbals of doom clash again.
"And as I stood there sucking the stars and the 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."
The journey has begun -- an arduous, lonely trek made exhilarating by the constant conflict between handmade heaven and ordained hell, between the creativity of the self and the inevitability of fate. Lambert's life meets Perry's death as an equal. And what starts as a sleuth's search for the cause of death becomes a seeker's quest for the essence of life.
This idea, McFarland says, came to him while reading detective stories. He realized that "a murder mystery gets its extension through a central question -- the whodunit. And though there's no murder in 'The Music Room,' the central question with which I tricked myself into writing the novel is 'Why did Perry kill himself?' Also, it gives the narrator a kind of a journey to make."
In a brilliant montage of flashbacks, he goes to his childhood home, the sprawling, opulent estate in Norfolk, Va., to the "long days of grown-up guesswork and petulance," where the two brothers "observe unobserved" their childhood innocence crumble as their wealthy parents waste away, "riding the high gay wave of alcoholism."
Lambert's father is a failed pianist, spending his days in the music room, "with a whisky just to the right of the music stand ... annihilating a Beethoven sonata ... banging out chord clusters in the melodramatic manner of a very large-scale loser." His mother, Helen, a former Las Vegas chorus girl, spends her days lazily draped over a chaise longue, playing backgammon and cards with obnoxious "drinking buddies" in a vacuous trance of "too much jewelry, too much food, too much chintz, and of course, very soon, much too much booze."
The two children become trapped in their parents' gloomy limbo of alcohol, wealth and neglect. Though his story isn't Lambert's by a far cry, McFarland insists, he does admit "I was a very unhappy child, and most of the people I run into wouldn't describe their childhood as happy" -- which may explain why readers connect with his story.
"In Western societies, we have not seen children as people but as something else," says McFarland, who lives with his wife and two children on the outskirts of Boston. "Flannery O'Connor once said that anybody who has survived childhood has enough material to last them the rest of their lives. Not that we would be writing about our childhoods the rest of our lives, but that childhood is a time of deep impressions, and there is a tendency to replicate those early experiences in our adult lives."
McFarland still hears those childhood refrains. "I grew up in Alabama, and though it is not the cruelest place in the world, and I'm sure that the same kind of racist cruelty exists everywhere, as a child, my deepest impressions were made there. Leaving the South was like leaving Hell," he confesses. "I have heard that things have changed. But I could not go back and live in the South. Even, I don't like traveling in the South."
He is not sure whether this alienation from the South has any influence on his writing but asserts that "alienation from society, from the community, from parents, lovers and friends, is so much a part of human nature."
This relates to the book, McFarland says, in the "inheritable nature of self-destruction," and the alienation that haunts Lambert as he goes to New York trying to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of his dead brother's life.
In a succession of rich, contrasting images reminiscent of both Fitzgerald's lyricism and Kafka's estrangement, McFarland takes Lambert back to his childhood. He lets him indulge in those distant, dreamy memories, and then brings him back rejuvenated to the stark realities of the present, only to take him back again. Occasionally, he takes him to the future through vivid dreams that often mirror Lambert's idea of a utopian reality. This constant shuffling to and from the past, the present, the future makes the story somehow timeless.
"It would be overstating," McFarland observes, "to say that the book ends happily. But the ending suggests that an enormous loss is survivable. Otherwise, what would I be writing about -- how terrible this person's life was, and how it stayed terrible?"
He admits, however, that "a book never ends up being as good as you had thought it would be. When it is done, it is done, with all of its limitations."
Much like life itself. And that's what makes one sit up and listen to Dennis McFarland and his story.