Review: A western romance novel about a brawling Texas fiddler pulls its punches
Perhaps it isn’t fair to judge a book by its predecessor, but in the case of Paulette Jiles, the impulse is irrepressible. Her new book, “Simon the Fiddler,” shares a great deal of DNA with her the 2016 National Book Award finalist, “News of the World.” Set in postbellum Texas, each centers on the quest to rescue a young woman: “News” (soon to be a film starring Tom Hanks) follows 71-year-old Captain Kidd as he endeavors to return an orphan girl captured and raised by the Kiowa to her family near San Antonio. The new novel tracks red-headed fiddler Simon Boudlin’s progress toward the same city, bent on reuniting with a woman he believes he is fated to marry. And while “News” transcends some of the hoary tropes of westerns — lending dignity and consciousness to its captive child — “Simon the Fiddler” sometimes tends toward the old-fashioned, sentimental and untrue.
If you’ve read “News of the World,” which was a bestseller in paperback, you already know how “Simon the Fiddler” ends; its closing section could serve as a prequel, at least in the story of Simon and Doris. And even if you haven’t, the conclusion isn’t difficult to foretell, though if you’re spoiler-sensitive and haven’t even glanced at “News,” skip to the next paragraph. Simon Boudlin, the military-dodging musician from Paducah, Ky., and his love interest, shiny-eyed Doris Dillon from Tralee, Ireland, after much toil, torment and adventure end up married, happy, living off the land of the Red River. To say it’s obvious is not to deny the appeal of giving oneself over to an afternoon of love-seeking across the Texas frontier.
In the last days of the Civil War, the capricious 23-year-old Simon, leader of a ragtag crew of retired regimental musicians, sets his sights on the young, blue-black maned Miss Dillon. Following two brief encounters in which he displays his talents on his treasured Markneukirchen fiddle, Simon knows Miss Dillon is meant for him. The two go their separate ways — he to Galveston with his new ensemble, she to San Antonio as an indentured governess to a family whose patriarch, the cruel and lecherous Colonel Webb, serves as the villain (every love story requires one). What follows is a young man’s pursuit of a patch of land and the girl with whom he wishes to settle it.
Jiles’ airy, luminescent prose and facility in spinning miniature dramas carries the novel’s sometimes predictable narrative further than one might expect. There are a half-dozen bar fights; the theft and violent recovery of the fiddle; a cross-Gulf boating caper; a kiss with a stereotypically frivolous debutante; the shooting of an alligator (the only time Chekhov’s proverbial gun is deployed); and a tense, year-long exchange of coded letters.
Jiles, who plays the tin whistle in a group where she lives in Texas, clearly delights in displaying the research she’s done, delving into the socioeconomic ramifications of being an itinerant performer trafficking in “low” music. “Fiddler” is suffused with music, and some of its most crystalline scenes feature the motley troupe: Damon, a Poe-quoting whistle player; Doroteo, a Tejano guitarist; and Patrick, a sweet, underage bodhran banger. “Music is clean, clear, its rules are forever, another country for the mind to go to,” writes Jiles, and along with her well-crafted action scenes knitted through with period detail, these lilting, elegiac scenes are the book’s cleanest and clearest, inching Simon ever closer to San Antonio and his damsel in distress.
But then Simon and Jiles’ fairy tale incites its own kind of distress. By design, Doris requires rescuing. She is young, foreign, bound by a likely unlawful contract, and subject to the whims of Colonel Webb, a banal hyper-misogynist who intends to have his way with her (or already has). And by design, Simon’s perspective dominates. At times it feels as if his relationship to the idea of Doris is expressed only through the desire for domination. “He felt he was approaching San Antonio as if it were an enemy city to be taken by stealth, at its heart a young woman who had been promised to him by some unknown means. He meant to have her.” This line is more sinister than Simon ever appears to be (though he does end up wielding half of his fiddler’s bow to another man’s devastating end). Yet it’s an alarming way to express one’s intent for a woman who is already effectively enchained. This may be the way of the old-fashioned love story, but I kept expecting the framework to be subverted at every turn.
Perhaps had a few fleeting pages of Doris’ perspective not cropped up about a third of the way through the book, her agency and interiority would not be so sorely missed. The omission is further underscored by Doris’ fierce, fascinating self-possession in “News of the World,” where she delivers some of the novel’s most incisive lines on behalf of a young girl who cannot speak for herself. It isn’t so much that “Fiddler’s” Doris lacks spirit — she saves Simon in some ways, too. It’s that for the most part she is muted, relegated to the imaginary domestic.
All of that said, there is still merit to writing — and reading — a love story. And in a moment when the mind may be in need of another country to go to, Jiles’ timeworn territory provides a cozy escape.
Pariseau is a writer and editor in New Orleans.
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