Monday, July 7, 2008
The Best Bad Book
Grandpa’s Fiddle by Timothy J. Halloran is the best bad book I’ve read since the African paperbacks I used to enjoy back in the 1960’s.
Grandpa’s Fiddle is best because it’s told in a voice like grandpa in his living room late at night by a crackling fire. Best because the story grabbed and held me to the end. Best because it’s a rollicking piece of Americana, a kind of folk art in the form of a novel. As much as I enjoyed this book as an adult, I wish I had a ten-year-old to share it because someone of that age could relish it, too, and the events would provoke interesting discussions about slavery, pioneers, wild horses, and raw frontier courage.
But it’s bad because the text screams for at least one proofreading, for crying out loud. It’s the second-worst self-publishing product I’ve ever encountered. (The worst was a novel named The Naked Computer by some guy named Joe Cottonwood.) In this case, though, the typos almost add to the casual, down-home quality of the storytelling just as they did in those African books I loved so long ago.
I learned about Grandpa’s Fiddle from one of my favorite blogs, People Reading, which posts photos of people reading books in cafes and laundromats and bus stops in San Francisco. One day there was a photo of a homeless man reading this book. I had to have it.
The framework of the novel is the history of a fiddle that has passed down the family line, beginning with its purchase in Africa by a freed slave and ending in Chicago in the present day. The fiddle itself has only a small role in the tale. Abraham Cooper is the slave who bargains for his own freedom, takes work as a sailor, returns to the old plantation to buy the freedom of the woman he loves, and travels the dangerous roads and rivers of pre-Civil War America. His story becomes mixed with that of an Irishman named Hoggen who is a natural horseman on the lam, pursued by a wealthy Englishman who wants to kill him. There are prophecies, Indian medicine, magnificent wild horses, hardworking pioneer women and men, frontier justice, even a blind woman with a shotgun. And once or twice, there are developments that will have you rolling your eyes, but if you’re like me you’ll forgive and accept them in the spirit of adventure.
Now, the odd thing is that I looked up the author and found that he is a lawyer practicing in San Francisco. The photo of that boyish-looking white man, an attorney for Pete’s sake, made me reconsider whether I can really call Grandpa’s Fiddle a kind of folk art. You decide. Enter the story with an open and uncynical mind, and I hope you enjoy it.