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Spanish Fly

by Will Ferguson

Each Will Ferguson book to date – whether it be How to Be Canadian, Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw, or his first novel, HappinessTM – has been a lot like a SmartCar: you may feel a bit guilty for not having one, and undoubtedly it’s got good qualities, but in the end it’s simply too goofy and insubstantial to be really worth owning.

Ferguson has written on Canadian history, prime ministers, travel, and Japan, but the current that runs through all of his books is the knee-jerk drollery he inserts with little regard for subtlety. Though that style has won him legions of fans and multiple Leacock Medals, his work is often too aggressive in its attempts to commandeer a reader’s attention and illustrate just how hilarious he’s trying to be. Spanish Fly, however, contains none of those orangutan-in-hotpants-juggling-bananas moments.

Ferguson is well versed in history as well as storytelling, but he isn’t known primarily as a novelist. Both of his strengths come to the fore, though, in his newest novel. Though readers of HappinessTM will recognize some of the characters’ names here, it is really only the names that remain the same. The Jack McGreary character of this book and that of the previous novel are not comparable in the least.

Neither are the books: while HappinessTM was mostly devoid of patent ridiculousness, it was also devoid of real entertainment. Spanish Fly is unlike anything Ferguson has offered before; it is compelling without being farcical. Perhaps this will be a disappointment to fans who appreciate his more heavy-handed approach, but I found the book stunning.

The story, set in America’s Dust Bowl in the 1930s, follows über-intelligent teen Jack McGreary as he outgrows his hometown and his father, who has thrown himself wholeheartedly into the losing end of a get-rich-quick scheme. Just after Jack begins to fleece the citizens of Paradise Flats for walking money, in rolls a Nash Ambassador and out steps Virgil Ray, career con man. His girl, and more than capable co-conspirator, Rosalind Scheible (“Miss Rose” to Jack), stays behind the wheel in case a quick escape is needed. Virgil saunters from store to store, conning his way into hundreds of dollars in mere minutes. Jack observes him and figures out the wrong-change scam, but instead of alerting shopkeepers, he gives Virgil a heads-up on a particularly gullible mark.

I sat on the bench out front and watched him stroll towards me. He touched his hat to me as he passed, and was just about to enter when I blurted out, “He’s good for fifty,” surprising the both of us.
The man in the fedora stopped. Stepped back. “Pardon?” “Tweed,” I said.
“Don’t let the dust in there fool you. He’s just about the richest man around here. Cash register’s stuffed full of money. He’s good for fifty. At least.”

The friendship is set, and Jack piles into the Nash. What follows is an encyclopaedia of early-20th-century grift wrapped in a marvellous story. The trio crisscrosses the southwestern U.S., fleecing the rubes they encounter. Jack, with his insight, intelligence, and bulk, increases their takings through a variety of new schemes – it is Jack who comes up with the Spanish Fly mail-order scheme (the pre-Internet equivalent of the penile-enhancement e-mail). It is Jack, too, who realizes that, by advertising their concoction as having a “medically proven” placebo effect, they can’t be charged for mail fraud.

Ferguson never reverts to kneejerk buffoonery, and the constant evolution of the trio’s schemes propels the novel effortlessly. As the scams become more elaborate, and the prospect of being caught increases, so too does Jack’s doubt regarding the pasts Virgil and Rose claim for themselves. While Jack becomes more suspicious, Virgil’s stories of legendary grifters begin to take on macabre endings, as one con man is invariably duped by another. The growing chasm between the two men runs parallel to the growing intimacy between Jack and Miss Rose. While the relationship grows in minute degrees – a glance here and a smile there – the love triangle is inevitable, and builds in tandem with the danger and paranoia.

The anticipated showdown between Jack and Virgil is held until the last possible second. Much like a good con, it builds slowly, overwhelms you, and leaves you fairly certain you know what just happened, but with niggling doubts.

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, and it is no mere placebo effect. It’s genuine medicine for the Canadian fiction scene.