Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Fairy Tale

     Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practicing gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth- floor window and vomited on the carpet.
     "Sorry," said one.
     "Don't worry," said the other. "Fairy vomit is no doubt sweet-smelling to humans."
                    (From The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar)

New York City, early 1990s, Lower East Side, at that time still the gritty and dangerous neighborhood that nurtured the punk rock music scene in the US. Think Rent.

Heather MacKintosh and Morag MacPherson, thistle fairies from rival clans who have become bickering friends, have fled Scotland to escape a band of fairies from the MacLeod clan because they have somehow offended the MacLeods by unwittingly mutilating an historic banner. Expert fiddlers in the traditional Scottish tradition, both claim to be the best fiddler in Scotland and compete for bragging rights. New York City will allow them to stretch their boundaries. They befriend antisocial, overweight Dinnie (referenced above as the worst violinist in New York) and a young woman named Kerry and in well-meaning attempts to help each of these humans with some very real challenges, experience a series of mishaps and adventures.  They also manage to stir up local fairies including rival bands from Chinatown, Little Italy, and Harlem. 

Our protagonists antagonized fellow fairies in the old country by playing garage-punk versions of Scottish reels and wearing torn kilts. They are using their East Village sojourn to learn to play guitar solos by the Ramones and the New York Dolls on their fiddles. There is even a search for a lost 1958 Gibson Tiger Top guitar on behalf of the ghost of Johnny Thunders.

They experience New York with all of its charm, eccentricity and color as well as its drug culture, poverty and underlying presence of violence. They drink plenty, offer illuminating observations on New York culture and behavior, and engage the contemporary music world even as they share  Scottish fiddle tunes and musical lore with their new friends. There is a threatening army of Cornish fairies led by the Tala, the Fairy King of Cornwall.  A community production of Midsummer Night's Dream presents an opportunity from some real fairy versus human fairy slapstick. A homeless woman named Magenta thinks she is leading a legion of ancient Greek hoplites in military maneuvers against the Persians as she wanders about the neighborhoods of New York.

If what I have described hear appeals or amuses, you are a good candidate for enjoying The Good Fairies of New York. If on the other hand, you are not the kind of reader who appreciates the suggestion that fairy vomit might be sweet-smelling to humans, or who does not see the wonderful congruity between Scottish reels and the Ramones, you will need to approach with caution or stay away entirely. 

The  2006 edition by Soft Skull Press, issued nearly fifteen years after the book was written, contains an introduction by Neil Gaiman that qualifies as a model for literary appreciation. This introduction is worth the price of the book itself.  Gaiman concludes:

     This is a book for every fiddler who has realised, half-way through playing an ancient Scottish air, that the Ramones, "I Wanna Be Sedated" is what folk music is all about, and gone straight into it. It's a book for every girl with home-dyed hair and fairy wings who can't honestly remember what happened last night. It's a book for people of whatever shape and size who like reading good books.

     I owned it for more than five years before reading it, then lent my copy to someone I thought should read it, and never got it back. Do not make either of my mistakes. Read it now and then make your friends buy their own copies. You'll thank me one day.

One more selection, this time by Heather MacIntosh in the way of a denouement:

     Meanwhile we are off for a few drams and a bit of serious fiddling. If the Irish and everyone else think they've heard Scottish music at its best just because Wee Maggie MacGowan managed to struggle through a few simple tunes without making any mistakes they have a lot to learn.

     Collum MacHardie has promised to make us some amplifiers. When our radical Celtic band gets going, the hills and glens will never be the same.

Note: this book deserves a soundtrack and perhaps I can enlist some help in creating one.

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