Simon the Fiddler

By Paulette Jiles

William Morrow. 352 pp. $27.99

Reviewed by Rob Merrill

Simon the Fiddler is the origin story of Simon Boudlin, a traveling musician who appears in Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel, the National Book Award finalist News of the World.

When we meet the 23-year-old — “5-foot-5 and 120 pounds” — he’s been recently conscripted into the Confederate army. Combining Don Quixote’s romance with the down-to-earth nature of his traveling companion Sancho, Simon is an indefatigable character who makes you want to root for him. “(The fiddle) was all he had against a chaotic world and the mindlessness of a losing war, against corruption, thievery, cowardice, incompetence, cactus, gunsmoke, and hominy,” writes Jiles.

After the South surrenders in 1865, Simon assembles a ragtag band to eke out a living amid the devastation. They’ll play anywhere for anyone, but as Simon tells his bandmates before their first gig, “they’ve got to damn well pay us.”

It’s at that first gig that Simon is smitten with Doris Dillon, a young woman he spies in the company of Col. Webb, the commander of the occupying Union forces. He can’t take his eyes off her “round face” and “beautiful dark blue eyes” and from that moment on, Simon’s ambition is clear, if not his fate.

Jiles’ sparse but lyrical writing is a joy. As the band checks out possible venues in Galveston, Texas, she writes, “To Simon, the world of musical structures was far more real than the shoddy saloons in which he had to play. … It existed outside him. It was better than he was. He was always on foot in that world, an explorer in busted shoes.”

Later on, as Simon concludes that it won’t be easy to buy a plot of land in the Red River Valley for his dream life with Doris: “It was going to take some doing. … But that’s why God made people young at first, to get the doing done.”

The pace of the novel quickens as Simon and Doris make plans. There are plots and schemes and scrapes, and above it all, music. It’s right there in the title — Simon the Fiddler — and it’s definitely there in the denouement as Jiles’ novel comes to a hopeful conclusion.

From the Associated Press.