Depression-era grifters

Will Ferguson descends into a world of con-men in Spanish Fly

The Great Depression is not the first period most writers would choose as a setting for their comic novel. The name’s all wrong. Kind of… depressing. And yet Will Ferguson chose this very era as the backdrop for his latest novel Spanish Fly (Viking Canada 393 pp.). The fact that he thought he could pull it off and has succeeded so admirably speaks to the subject of the novel itself: confidence.

As a writer who became an award-winning chronicler of Canadiana more or less by accident a skeptical reader could discern something of a confidence game in Will Ferguson’s career. “The one difference” he explains “Is I’ve been up front about it. If it was a con I would have said I was Will Ferguson PhD.” For a con to be a con there needs to be an element of misdirection. And the only direction that Ferguson is concerned with is onward and upward.

Spanish Fly is the story of Jack McGreary a young man growing up in the dust bowl who gets caught up with a pair of swindlers passing through town. Before he knows what’s happening Virgil Ray and Miss Rose are educating Jack in the art of the grift. Jack learns about change raising pigeon drops mish rolls and many more elaborate schemes for separating fools from their money.

As they criss-cross the American Southwest in their Nash Ambassador they hit every berg hamlet and village large enough to contain a rube which is to say all of them. Pulling a series of ever more elaborate cons Jack tries to ignore his guilty conscience but is never entirely able to believe Virgil’s assurances that they are fundamentally different from common crooks because “When they give you money it’s not stealing.” Meanwhile the rumblings of a coming world war are also becoming increasingly difficult to ignore as is the growing sexual tension between Jack and Miss Rose.

“The background the historical stuff was all as accurate as I could make it” says Ferguson. “I didn’t invent any of that. And I wanted that coming sense of a world war. It climaxes on the weekend that Germany invades Poland and that was intentional. I wanted it to build up to that. The idea is that it is paralleling Jack’s story as he’s trying not to confront what he’s doing and the fact that there are ramifications and it doesn’t matter whether or not you want to choose.”

Where his first novel Happiness ™ was a broad satire about a self-help book that destroys the world Spanish Fly is told in a markedly different style that serves the story perfectly. “The nature of the story dictates how you’re going to write it” Ferguson says.

Spanish Fly is an assured work of fiction from a writer best known in this country for non-fiction. Frequently hilarious and expertly paced the story is also occasionally surprisingly sad. But the dark backdrop only rarely overwhelms the lightness of the storytelling that makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read. This well-researched novel is a delightful trove of con-man lore as charming as a grifter working a mark.