The Wold according to Craig

His 'Late late Show' audience of 'cheeky wee monkeys' will find a different Ferguson on the pages of his new novel_one who dreams about Jung and dares to wax philosophical

May 10, 2006|By NICK MADIGAN | NICK MADIGAN,SUN REPORTER

The comic as philosopher is not a new concept. Lenny Bruce laid unspoken claim to the mantle, and Richard Pryor, despite his pyrotechnics and profanities, was cerebral first and foremost. Even the Monty Python guys reveled in metaphysics, often while wearing frumpy dresses.

Now, Craig Ferguson, the hilariously digressive host of CBS' The Late Late Show, goes deep into the ether of the subconscious in his first novel, Between the Bridge and the River (Chronicle Books), a Jungian jaunt through evangelical extremism, terminal illness, fleeting love and Hollywood excess.

Ferguson's book is revelatory in ways that perhaps not even he intended, and plumbs depths far curiouser than his amiable, off-the-cuff television persona suggests. Under the guise of hapless odyssey -- full of mirthful eccentrics, drunks and grasping fame-seekers -- is a tale of spiritual rebirth, a journey of lost souls seeking light.

And yet the 43-year-old Scot was careful to point out in an interview that he abhors philosophical pontificators.

"I have a great resistance to pseudo-intellectualism, and by that I mean judgmental academia," Ferguson said. "The challenge is not to be unhappy. Open a newspaper if you want to be unhappy. The challenge is to be happy, help others, do the right thing. Now there's a challenge."

In fact, the command to "help others" occurs more than once in Ferguson's novel, spoken by narcissistic characters whose clarity and deliverance come in the simple act of lending a hand.

Although he rejected the label of closet philosopher, Ferguson acknowledged that he is fascinated with "how the universe works and what my place in it is," and, as such, reads "voraciously."

Over the years, since clearing his head of numbing distractions like alcohol and drugs, Ferguson delved into Kafka, Sartre and Camus, and then moved on to the powerhouse Russians -- Gogol, Ostrovsky, Bulgakov and Dostoyevsky.

It might surprise some in Ferguson's growing talk-show audience that the man who periodically addresses them as "cheeky wee monkeys" and who for seven years played Nigel Wick, the boisterous, dominating, cocaine-sniffing boss on The Drew Carey Show -- where he excelled in dead-on impressions of Sean Connery and Michael Caine -- is actually a book-toting intellectual.

But what makes Ferguson's mental athleticism palatable is his lack of pretense about it. He discusses lofty tomes as casually as he talks about anything else.

"One of the first things that really liberated me was reading Descartes' Discourse on Method," he said, referring to the seminal work by Rene Descartes, considered by some to be a founder of modern philosophy.

"That suddenly freed me up to be a dilettante. He decided, `I'm going to live my life as a philosophical experiment.' I said, `Fine, I'm with you. Me and you, Rene, we'll figure it out together.'"

In the pages of Between the Bridge and the River, though, the philosopher-in-chief is Carl Gustav Jung, the father of dream analysis, who keeps popping up in one of the main character's dreams, offering solace, clarity and crucial advice.

"I actually was dreaming about Carl Jung when I was writing the book," Ferguson said, chuckling. "It was very, very odd."

In the book, Jung "appears in different forms, which is very Joseph Campbell," Ferguson said of the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a study of heroic myths and tales and their place in cultures around the world.

The name of Ferguson's book, was not, as might be expected, inspired by Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and Into the Trees.

"The title came from a conversation I had with a Jesuit priest, who was a wee bit forward-thinking," Ferguson recalled. "I said to him, `All suicides go to hell.' He said, `Well, technically, yes, but there are always mitigating circumstances. For example, if a man were to jump from a bridge and genuinely repent his actions before he hit the river, then he would enter the kingdom of the Lord.'

"I kind of like the idea that there's always one last shot on the table, that there's always an unexpected shot of redemption," said Ferguson, who included in his book a version of that conversation, as well as a suicide attempt -- a desperate leap by one of his characters, terminally ill, into the frigid waters of the River Seine in Paris.

Ferguson freely admits that the book is largely autobiographical, particularly in the tale of two Scots, George and his pal Fraser, a "phony TV evangelist" of dubious morals whose life turns around only after he gets beaten to within an inch of his life outside a club in Miami Beach.

"The stuff that seems very weird is actually very true," Ferguson said, laughing again. "It's very difficult for the reader to tell."

Asked to give an example, he begged off, saying, "You have to sort them out for yourself."

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