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Banjo of Destiny

by Cary Fagan

The banjo suffers from a stultifying reputation. Instead of imagining the spirit of an instrument that was once played by slaves who yearned to be free, we tend to associate it with redneck mountain men who would just as soon shoot you as look at you. Nevertheless, there is a sizeable group who, heedless of any possible ignominy, have fallen in love with the instrument.

In the interest of full disclosure, it must be noted that said group includes this reviewer. If the subject matter of his new novel is any indication, it also includes prolific Toronto author Cary Fagan.

And it includes Jeremiah Birnbaum, the book’s central character in Banjo of Destiny. Jeremiah, the only child in a nouveau riche family living in an unnamed North American city, falls hard for the instrument, but quickly realizes this love will not fly in a family with constricting notions of culture and class. Sure enough, his parents refuse to let him purchase one.

This injunction lays the ground for the real theme of Fagan’s book: that a healthy obsession and commitment will inevitably summon skills you never thought you had, and reveal allies where you least expected them.

Since he cannot buy a banjo, Jeremiah decides to build one. And so the skills-­deficient hero of this heartfelt novel learns his way around the power tools in shop class, patiently endures the mockery of classmates and teachers, discovers that failure is a natural component of any worthwhile task, finds value in other people’s garbage, and discovers that communication can help him defend a cherished belief.

He also learns how to play. (And so will readers, if they follow the advice in the author’s note.)