[14 September 2010]
Gein Weingarten’s The Fiddler in the Subway is a collection of short essays that examine a variety of interesting people and places. The stories are universally well written and deeply fascinating; most of them combine a peculiarly appealing mix of humor and sadness that encapsulate the complexity of each person or locale.
Most of the chapters focus on a vaguely political subject, but Weingarten is particularly skilled at making these often challenging topics extremely accessible and interesting for the reader. One of his most moving chapters is “Fatal Distraction”, which examines the topic of parents who accidentally left their children to die in locked cars. This is powerful subject material, but it is presented in such a way that evokes a well of sympathy and compassion for everyone involved in the tragedy. This sense of holistic understanding is a major thematic component of this text and is used time and time again to challenge the reader into questioning his or her own assumptions and prejudices.
Another powerful essay is “Snowbound”, which examines the increasingly desperate situation of an Inuit tribe on the remote island of Savoonga. Weingarten travels to the island expecting to find a humorous story, but instead meets a community and culture in decline, its heritage being ebbed away by the unceasing tide of global capitalism and rampant alcoholism. The essay is moving, not only because it addresses a social ill, but because it also illustrates the personal turmoil that Weingarten experienced during the his trip. This critical introspection is an almost constant component of these essays and in part defines Weingarten’s style as a writer.
Weingarten’s personality shines through this book. You really get the impression that you know the man, and he is unabashed in sharing his personal flaws and assumptions. The first chapter begins with a meditation on “How I Learned How to Write”, in which Weingarten muses about his early career and some of the ideas that he has on writing and what writing must do in order to be effective and interesting, which is apparently always keep death in mind, even when (perhaps especially) discussing humor.
This dichotomy of doom/laughter is particularly vivid in “The Armpit of America”, as Weingarten explores the dying community of Battle Mountain, Nevada. While poking fun at the town itself, Weingarten succinctly illustrates decline through almost arbitrary reasons; the interstate passed the town, which led to its inevitable poverty.
That a whole community can be casually ruined by the Department Transportation is chilling, and Weingarten softens the blow by focusing on the good people of the community and their own black humor regarding their situation. The story ultimately provides a sense of hope for Battle Mountain, but that feeling of desolation never quite leaves. There is always a dark tinge to Weingarten’s stories, no matter the humor of the particular piece, and this is especially true for the title piece.
“The Fiddler in the Subway” is a very famous story, and it exemplifies the themes of the book as a whole. It follows a world-class violinist as he plays in a metro station; he is ignored by almost everyone. The situation is hilarious, but the inner meaning is depressing, as it seems to indicate that art isn’t appreciated or acknowledged in today’s fast-paced culture.
Weingarten takes the time in this chapter to reflect upon the nature of art and how we perceive it, discussing that often the context of art is just as important as the art itself. In this fashion, the crowd at the metro doesn’t seem quite so consistently uncultured, but rather understandable and sympathetic, again reaching for that holistic understanding of the situation.
Weingarten is much the same as the fiddler; perhaps because he wrote in the Washington Post, his essays weren’t given the literary recognition that they deserved. Fiddler in the Subway rectifies this grave mistake and showcases Weingarten’s immense talent.