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Book Review: The Fiddler in the Subway: The Story of the World-Class Violinist Who Played for Handouts by Gene Weingarten

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Although The Fiddler in the Subway was an interesting book to review, it is a little odd to review for this reason: It contains 20 short stories or essays or literary explorations, each of which, in itself, has a fascinating beginning, middle, and ending much like an entire novel might have — an Act One, Act Two, and Act Three. As a reviewer, I think it is unfair to give the denouement of any particular “chapter.” Instead I will try to give the real flavor of just a few.

Chapter 1: “The Great Zucchini”

“The Great Zucchini” loves children. He spends much of his time entertaining two- through six-years old at any special occasion where parents or caretakers are willing to fork over $300 for a 35 minute session of abandoned, hysterical laughter for their child. More often than not, his shows involve small numbers of neighborhood children who have been invited to share a child’s party fun.

To grownups, Zucchini is pure slapstick — far from being funny to parents who shake their heads at this man’s utter ridiculousness. But to children who watch him mistake a banana for a telephone, or begin to eat paper from a toilet paper roll, or watch him hunt for the birthday girl or boy standing directly behind him, The Great Zucchini is a furious riot. He does perform some magic, none of which is sophisticated. The book provides insight into this man’s peculiar life and to the knack he has for making kids happy.

Chapter 2: “The First Father”

I was surprised to hear that Bill Clinton’s real father flipped over the family Buick Sedan while traveling from Chicago to Hope, Arkansas to pick up his wife, pregnant with the man who would someday become the 42nd president. Witnessing the accident, a man and his wife ran to investigate. When they could locate no driver, the man reached down into a partially filled drainage ditch, hunting for Clinton’s father. Where was he? How could he disappear? How much did this incident influence the life of soon-to-be-born William Clinton?

Chapter 3: “The Ghost of the Hardy Boys”

As a young boy, I probably read most of The Hardy Boys mystery stories. I thought the books were great, so limited was my pre-adolescent vocabulary. This chapter tells of The Hardy Boys writer Leslie McFarlane’s initial passion for writing and how he eventually tired of what he considered trite literature. How could he enthusiastically keep “banging out another idiotic novel … dull stuff;” yet his books still sell today

Chapter 17: “Fatal Distraction”

Here, author Weingarten tells of horrifying cases where children were left, strapped in their car seats, to expire in the sun’s searing heat. Because they could not be seen and were either quiet or asleep, their driver forgot them and the intense heat (hyperthermia) killed them, often within a short period of time. The author explains his own near-tragedy with his daughter.

Chapter 20: “The Fiddler in the Subway”

Acclaimed violin virtuoso Joshua Bell stood in L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. and played his heart out during the height of rush hour. One thousand ninety-seven people passed by hearing the luscious melodies of Bell’s classical violin. How captivating, one would think. The surprising results are found in Weingarten’s last tale, “The Fiddler in the Subway.”

Chapter 9: “Tears for Audrey”

A young girl, Audrey Santo, all but drowned in a backyard swimming pool when she was four-years-old. Today, she remains comatose or, as her family believes, unconscious or “asleep.” Audrey will someday wake up, says her devoted grandmother. It has been 11 years since the accident. Audrey is still asleep. In Audrey’s home, paranormal things happen regularly: sacred hosts bleed during Mass, statues of Jesus and Mary weep oily tears. Audrey’s home has become a shrine for miracle believers who feel that through Audrey’s intercession with Jesus, their supplications will be answered. Is this a case of divine intervention or a cleverly disguised spoof of wishful thinking?

About Regis Schilken