Review: Music matters in Paulette Jiles’ ’Simon the Fiddler’

“Simon the Fiddler” by Paulette Jiles (William Morrow)

“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 is 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 eek 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.”

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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 to read. As the band checks out possible venues in Galveston, Texas, she dips into her main character’s mind: “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.

It’s a beautifully written book and a worthy follow-up to “News of the World.” That novel is due in theaters, starring Tom Hanks, later this year (and just in time for the Oscars). Until then, lose yourself in this entertaining tale.

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