You've got to hand it to author Will Ferguson --when he decides to stretch stylistically, he really stretches. With Spanish Fly, his second novel in a career highlighted by humorous non-fiction, Ferguson eschews his trademark Canadiana to explore the American heartland of the late 1930s--a dull, desolate place reeling from the after-effects of the Depression and Prohibition while facing down World War II.
Protagonist Jack McGreary is young man with more than his share of burdens to bear. His mom is dead, his dad is nuts, his girlfriend is apathetic and his hometown of Paradise Flats is one big, go-nowhere dustbowl of despair and poverty. So when dapper grifters Virgil and Miss Rose blow into town--scamming the local yokels with sleight-of-hand tricks and other deceits--Jack sees them as his ticket out. But what begins as a thrilling escape from the tedium of small-town life soon morphs into something more sinister. Ferguson knows how to set a scene--his descriptions of the "Negro" jazz halls Jack and his cohorts haunt are vivid and palpable. So too are his portraits of backwater towns. But Ferguson is also a sucker for clichés (hair like straw, tar-paper roofs et al). And some stuff just doesn't fly.
For example, Jack is portrayed as some kind of natural-born genius able to see through carnival scams, theological tenets and flaws in the human spirit with laser precision. An interesting angle maybe, but highly improbable. The dialog is also strained and larded with hoary banalities (does anyone really say "on account of" instead of "because?" And don't the Irish have the lock on referring to fathers as "Da?")
Ferguson succeeds in painting a striking picture of post-Depression-era America but passage to the end is bumpier than a spin in Virgil's jalopy. Coming from the author who slayed us with gems like "Manitoba - Gateway to Saskatchewan," it's a rather disappointing (albeit ambitious) ride. --Kim Hughes --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“An eminently readable novel… Like Robertson Davies, Will Ferguson has the gift of linkage, of letting unlikely novelistic strands interleave and thicken into a significant braid.” - The Globe and Mail
“A remarkable novel that is sure to become a modern-day classic…. Ferguson combines fact and fiction to produce a compelling and surprisingly humorous coming-of-age tale that will appeal to all readers…. Ferguson builds a tense climax by skilfully planting morsels of key information throughout the story. This leads to an exhilarating and unpredictable conclusion that will have readers guessing until the final page.” - Winnipeg Free Press
“Ferguson has written history and humour side by side many times, and this is the first time he has fused them together so successfully… It’s a pleasure to ride with our sort-of-heroes in their 1939 Nash Ambassador.” - Telegraph Journal
“Stunning…. Spanish Fly will be in high demand because of Ferguson’s name, but it should be in high demand because of his talent. Nuanced and enthralling, Spanish Fly is undoubtedly the best writing he has ever done.” - Quill & Quire Books of the Year review
“Ferguson is a novelist to be reckoned with…. This is a man who has found his storytelling voice, using the Great Depression as a backdrop for three grifters who are blowing through the American South one scam at a time. If it were up to me, I would have put this book on the Giller list.” - The Ottawa Citizen
“A remarkable work, steeped in history and arcane knowledge but rooted in the intimate timelessness of the human heart and soul. There are a few laughs, but this is a serious, and ultimately heart-rending, story. Spanish Fly is the real thing.” - Vancouver Sun
“A solid read… Ferguson shows a flair for historical detail and pop culture.” - Montreal Gazette
“Some of the most fascinating and interesting reading I’ve seen in a long time. Ferguson’s writing style flows smoothly…. In terms of drama, humour, pacing, imagination, research, vocabulary and the ability to express his ideas through his characters, Will Ferguson ranks up there with some of the best I’ve read.” - The Leader-Post
“Will Ferguson makes his protagonist’s character resemble the landscape—bleak and weathered, but carrying a promise or at least a hint of something better. One can read Spanish Fly and become immersed in its setting of dustbowl plains juxtaposed with the high-living shills who exploit it, but the most substantial immersion is in the exploration of attitudes and beliefs.” - The Edmonton Journal
“A wonderful ride.” - The Calgary Herald
“Ferguson’s offbeat view of the world is on display in this charming novel about con men…. Ferguson paints a vivid picture of the era, with its wild jazz clubs, pool hall sharks, failing banks, hapless farmers and easy marks. It’s funny, dark and entertaining.” - Toronto Sun
“Ferguson fills his pages with fascinating historical detail and lovingly described cons. His lengthy descriptions of scams are enthralling, funny and perhaps even educational.” - The Guardian
“This is a terrific book, lyrical and hilarious, bleak and funny, with a love of history balanced against a rippingly clever plot.” - The Telegraph UK
“An entertaining comic tale of American boy makes bad.” - The Daily Mail
“A heady mix of jitterbugging, swindling and double-double-crossing, set against the whisky-scented backdrop of America in 1939…. This is a richly atmospheric novel that seduces you—just as Jack seduces—with its reckless hedonism, feats of incredible ingenuity and fabulous costumes.” - New Statesman
“Ferguson’s comic picaresque is a delight, and the book would have worked just as well at twice the length.” - The Financial Times
“A terrific novel—complex but fun, philosophical but sharp, perceptive but ambiguous. The dialogue is razor-sharp and laced with dry wit, the endless cons are delivered with gusto and even the deeper, more thoughtful moments zing along in page-turning fashion…. As Ferguson builds to a crackling multilayered climax, the ideas of right and wrong, true and false are blurred, but you’re just happy to be along for the ride.” - The Sunday Herald
“Brilliantly entertaining.” - The Times