Banjo of Destiny
A Novel by Cary Fagan
2011 / 96 Pages
The Setup: When the music of a banjo stirs the soul of wealthy, cultivated young Jeremiah he is determined to learn how to play it — even if he has to make one himself.
Jeremiah Birnbaum is stinking rich. He lives in a house with nine bathrooms, a games room, an exercise room, an indoor pool, a hot tub, a movie theater, a bowling alley and a tennis court. His parents, a former hotdog vendor and window cleaner who made it big in dental floss, make sure Jeremiah goes to the very best private school, and that he takes lessons in all the things he will need to know how to do as an accomplished and impressive young man: etiquette lessons, ballroom dancing, watercolor painting. And, of course, classical piano. Jeremiah complies, because he wants to please his parents. But one day, by chance, he hears the captivating strains of a different kind of music — the strums, plucks and rhythms of a banjo. It is music that stirs something in Jeremiah’s dutiful little soul, and he is suddenly obsessed. And when his parents forbid him to play one, he decides to learn anyway — even if he has to make the instrument himself. (From the hardcover edition)
Banjo of Destiny sounds like something that might be the sequel to Tenacious D’s box office bomb The Pick of Destiny instead of a children’s novel by ScotiaBank Giller long-listed author Cary Fagan. You may recall that earlier this month I wrote in my review of Fagan’s collection My Life Among the Apes that he was robbed and that his work deserved a place on the Giller shortlist. This, combined with the fact that I only had enough time to engage with something that was on the shorter side before my reading time would be monopolized by this year’s National Book Award finalists made this title a near lock. The fact that it’s the only other Fagan novel in my possession sealed the deal.
As a rule I generally don’t review young adult novels or children’s literature though there have been a few notable exceptions. It’s not that I have anything against these genres so much as I simply don’t partake in reading anything from them all that often. No Twilights, no Hunger Games, no Harry Potters here. Maybe I’m missing out on a whole world of possibilities, but I feel like I’ve passed the target demographic in terms of age, and quite honestly, I love reading adult fiction too much to put it on backburner for any significant period of time.
In Banjo of Destiny we’re introduced to young Jeremiah Birnbaum a boy whose parents, a former hot dog vendor and window cleaner, struck it rich by inventing a gadget that revolutionized the flossing industry. Jeremiah lives a life of luxury in a mansion complete with nine bathrooms, a movie theater, his very own bowling alley, and a frickin’ elevator! Still, for all these material things something’s not quite right in Birnbaum land.
Jeremiah’s life lacks the basic freedoms that most kids his age, like his much less rich, only friend in the world Luella, take for granted. Forced to adhere to a rigid schedule of activities: golf, ballroom dancing, piano lessons, and more, Jeremiah can barely find the time to be a kid, and when he does, he’s not even sure what he’s supposed to do. Having everything handed to you it seems, does not equal being happy.
One day while running outside as part of gym class, Jeremiah and Luella veer off course to investigate a supposed short cut and come across and African-American gentleman sitting on a porch playing the banjo. To Jeremiah, this is the most beautiful sound he’s ever heard. He’s immediately enthralled and wants to learn how to play the instrument, but when he brings this new found passion to the attention of his parents he’s dismayed to discover that they’re not only dismissive of the endeavor, but they also outright forbid him from purchasing the instrument. Thank goodness for loopholes.
Jeremiah’s realizes his dream of playing the banjo by monopolizing his shop teacher’s time to build his very own from pieces of a broken chair and an old cookie tin. He’s almost 100% successful, but then what will he do for strings? He can’t disobey his parents and purchase them…
Jeremiah’s tale is an entertaining, interesting look at comforts that riches can afford an individual and the basic desires that drive us all. What happens when we possess everything under the sun except the one thing we need in order to truly feel fulfilled? How hard are we willing to fight for moments of happiness and how are they different or better than simply living with contentment?
For a children’s book, Fagan certainly isn’t pulling any punches. All of these themes are bubbling just under the surface of what otherwise feels like your average, run of the mill, feel good story about pursuing your dreams and living up to your potential. There’s also a nice added bonus essay at the end of the story from Fagan himself about using the internet and spare parts to create your very own banjo.