A late-night comic turns his satiric wit loose on sinners, scandals and Hollywood

Review Novel

April 30, 2006|By VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH | VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Between the Bridge and the River

Craig Ferguson

Chronicle Books / 336 pages / $24.95

Some critics begin their reviews with a disclaimer. Here is mine: I adore Craig Ferguson. His monologues are the smartest and wittiest on late-night TV, where he hosts CBS' The Late Late Show and has become a cult favorite among intellectuals and stoners alike. Ferguson is the Charlie Rose of the comedy set, with a thick Scottish accent and an encyclopedic knowledge of history and literature that belies his having dropped out of school. He is also an uncanny impressionist of notables ranging from Michael Caine and Sean Connery to George Bush and Kim Jong Il, and wields a double-entendre as the Iron Chef does a knife - very, very keen.

Pre-Hollywood success, Ferguson was a jack of all trades: He worked in a post office in Glasgow, was a drummer in a series of Scottish/English punk bands (he's still friends with the surviving Sex Pistols), was a bouncer in New York clubs, made a number of small, sweet independent films, and co-starred on The Drew Carey Show for eight years.

He was a blackout drunk between ages 15 and 30, has been married and divorced twice, and has a 5-year-old son, Milo, and two shelter dogs. He is one of those people you would most like/hope to meet at a party.

Given his twisted resume, plus all the late nights staying up to watch his wildly tangential show, I was, admittedly, eagerly awaiting Ferguson's first novel.

I have not been disappointed, nor will you be. Ferguson's a Scottish Nick Hornby on acid, with a little A.L. Kennedy weirdness tossed in: thigh-slappingly funny, acutely nuanced, tartly sardonic and unabashedly poignant.

Between the Bridge and the River traces the interconnected lives of four men (the interconnectedness evolves slowly). The first two are George and Fraser, Scottish boys who grow up to be badder-assed as adults than they were as teens (when Fraser was endlessly bullied and George regularly saved him). Their adult savvy does not lead to luck, however. As adults George is an unhappily married attorney with a daughter he adores and a case of terminal lung cancer, the diagnosis of which catapults him toward suicide. Fraser is a televangelist with, as is too often the case with televangelists, a rather public sex problem involving the wrong sort of ladies.

Saul and Leon are American half-brothers from hillbilly country. Called The Bastards by their fellow orphanage-mates, they become snake-handlers - real and metaphoric - and have some run-ins with a serial killer named Ted, then hit Hollywood and get famous (all roads, Scottish and hillbilly, lead to Hollywood in Ferguson's novel) when the enormously fat and stunningly perverse Saul does a Svengali routine with his talented but clueless brother: "From the moment they had been born their DNA contained a combination of madness and showmanship, so it was inevitable that Saul and Leon would have ended up in Los Angeles, the home of the attention-seeking spiritually disenfranchized."

There are also women - the French goddess Claudette, whose great loves tend to die (six - and now George); the whore Candy Chambers ("Call me, sweetie"); Mrs. Wolf of the orphanage, whose botched cleft lip surgery left her with a permanent snarl. They might seem like stock characters, but they are the attendant females to the men who inhabit this unseemly world.

Although a comedian by established trade at this juncture, Ferguson is first and foremost a satirist in the Swiftian tradition. The book's opening line is a metaphor for the entire novel: "Cloven-hoofed creatures passed this way." It isn't just on the Scottish moor that this is the case, where satyrs, cows and perhaps Satan himself have ambled by, but everywhere, in particular Hollywood, Washington and the omnipresent televangelist world where the cloven-hoofed are in abundance.

Ferguson has a story to tell, albeit one embedded in and delineated by tangent, metaphor, vignettes, tale-spinning, myth, allegory, angst, outrage, a touch of memoir and dashes of Scottish and American history.

The author also has commentary galore - on the state of the world in the 21st century, on the vestiges of old Hollywood and the tainted nature of new Hollywood, on politics and sex and religion and everything else your mother told you it was impolite to discuss in mixed company.

Ferguson rips the wheeling and dealing done in every profession, from script-writing to selling religion; he exposes the soullessness of the global marketplace, whether the product is God or entertainment. Good comic writing is a treat rarely achieved, but Ferguson's novel is stylistically fresh, ribald, incisive and a fine read. Between the Bridge and the River marks a marvelously engaging debut.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books, most recently "Day of the Dead and Other Stories." She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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