Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Spanish Fly

Spanish Fly by Will Ferguson
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Feb 16, 09

bookshelves: historical-fiction, 2009, cover-love
Read in February, 2009

Growing up in Texas during the Great Depression, Jack McGreary is a very bright young man with an erratic father who's fallen hard for the Drake Gold scam. His father's dreams of a building a house have gone up with the dust of topsoil that blows across the once-fertile prairies all the way into Canada. There's nothing in the small town of Paradise Flats - itself the scene of many swindles - to hold Jack. So in 1939 when Virgil Ray and Rose pass through the town conning shopkeepers out of their money, Jack - easily figuring out the swindle - doesn't just help them; he joins them.

With their "liar", as Virgil pronounces it (lair), above a diner run by a Chinaman in Silver City, New Mexico, the three drive their Nash Ambassador across the states of the American southwest, pulling cons and dancing to jazz everywhere they go with the rise of Nazi Germany buzzing in the background. With Jack's brains at work, they start pulling bigger and cleverer heists until one last ploy lands them in the middle of murder, and Jack's not sure whether he's being played by Virgil and Rose.

Ferguson has deftly recreated an era with intimate and what is probably flawless detail, a finely crafted historical novel exploring "the Golden Age of the Con" - and the cons are all real, as are the swindlers that pepper Virgil's talk when he gets going. The speech patterns, the bits and pieces of history in the form of ads, cars now obsolete, war, attitudes etc. all adds to the feel and tone of a novel that reads like it's walked straight out of the Dirty Thirties. This is a work of exhaustive research and intimate knowledge, and as such, it's an amazing piece of work.

But that is also the problem with the book. While it's generally more enjoyable to read and study history through fiction (especially when it's this well researched and reconstructed), the downfall of this book is that Ferguson seems more enamoured of the era and the cons, and more interested in squeezing in all his fine research, than in constructing a truly interesting and engaging protagonist and a gripping plot. Hence my three stars, and the main reason why it took me so long to read the damn thing.

Jack has the bones of a memorable character but he's never fully fleshed out. As the narrator, we get a lot of insights through him, and as a bright fella who questions theology and human nature, he provides quite the commentary. But it's still flat. You don't really learn all that much about Jack himself. Sure, we get his upbringing, his parents' story, but it's all in the context of setting the scene: the "black blizzards", the rise and fall of Paradise Flats and the south, the Great Depression, the scams and swindles that set the stage for Virgil and Rose.

It has that contrived feel, like Jack is a structural device for the history, rather than the other way around. The Con is the real hero of the story, not Jack. Even when he's learning wooing techniques from Ovid in the town library to win over the librarian's daughter Rebecca, it's still setting up details that will come into play later, and the entire plotline is only there because it helps explain how Jack ended up with Rose and Virgil.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the story or appreciate the work that went into it. I'm very impressed. But Ferguson gets so excited about the cons and Virgil's shady past and the next trick, that he seems to forget Jack's there half the time. I'm not entirely sure that the novel needed to be written in first person, even. But why Jack? Do we need Jack? He's a mere vehicle, a medium, through which to cross time and view this fascinating world that was so much a product of a time and place and culture. It hasn't entirely disappeared, either; it's just taken different forms and, perhaps, higher stakes (Enron anyone? And Bernard Madoff is currently on trial in New York for a long-running Ponzi scam).

I learnt a lot about the period - one of the main reasons why I read it - and with Kathryn's help I could even understand some words that would otherwise have been unfamiliar (like "skeeters" = mozzies). If you're interested in the 30s or the southwest states of America, you'll love this book. If you love stories of heists, cons, swindles, tricks, you'll love this book. If you get caught up on the motivations of key characters, character growth, emotional growth, all of that, then you might be disappointed - but it's still worth a read.

As a final point, the author says that the character of Jack first appeared as a minor character in his previous novel, Happiness. It's about an editor who publishes a self-help book that actually works (or maybe it's about the book - I got the sense from reading the blurb that, again, it's not a person who's the star). Has anyone read this and is it any good? I didn't get the impression it was set in the same period as this book, but maybe Ferguson took artistic licence with the character?


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