Quill and Quire

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Banjo Lessons

by David Carpenter

In Tim Fisher, the anti-hero of David Carpenter’s seventh book, the prairie author has created an engaging character whose struggle toward independence and maturity fills this long and frequently very funny coming-of-age novel.

Set in Alberta, British Columbia, Oregon, and Toronto in the heady days of the 1960s, Banjo Lessons begins with the preoccupations of Tim-as-baby and Tim-as-child, then follows him through university, and yearning early love, with its attendant triumphs and terrors.

The novel is a perceptive portrayal of a young, would-be writer’s rites-of-passage. Along the way, Carpenter introduces a rich cast of characters who either help or hinder Tim in his search for maturity and understanding. Among them are the two young women who frame Tim’s development: the earthy, elusive Rita, his first crush; and the classily beautiful Nancy, who is attendant at each seminal point in Tim’s development, yet never becomes a part of his inner life. Carpenter develops the characters and motives of these women with uncanny (to this male reader, at least) perception and sympathy, and demonstrates both verve and understanding in his handling of Tim’s relationship with each. As a result, the parts dealing with Tim, Rita, and Nancy are some of the best and most entertaining in the book.

Banjo Lessons is a compelling romp through wryly familiar situations and relationships, described in a fresh and engaging manner. But the novel is also a useful record of how the creative urge, and its faltering but determined expression, develops. The title – Tim takes banjo lessons from the free-spirited Rita and goes on to surpass her in his skill with the instrument – is a useful metaphor for Tim’s growth toward his own personal and creative harmony. Those familiar with the banjo will find its jolly, jangling, sometimes eerily moving music echoing through this novel, and driving it toward its hopeful conclusion.