Every single character in this novel pretty much wanders barefoot through a field of burning coals. Some of them are too stupid to realize it, others feel it is their just desserts, others see it and turn it into something they can profit from.
George and Fraser are two Scotsmen, childhood friends who drifted apart after a fateful meeting with a pedophile. Both of them find themselves now in a position where their chosen paths in life have brought them nothing but stagnation. Fraser is a popular host of a religious show shilling for a God he barely believes in while wearing knitted jumpers sent from elderly fans, and sexually exploiting his staff. George is a man married to a wife he never really loved (the feeling is mutual with the missus) and long past hope in his mind of connecting with his teenaged daughter. Something has to give.
Saul and Leon are brothers from the American South, essentially orphans after their washed up Las Vegas showgirl mother is locked away due to her crippling case of Munchausen Byproxy. These brothers find they cannot live apart from each other, one blessed with the singing voice, looks and charm of his famous father, and the other blessed with the smarts, cunning, and heartlessness of a boxing promoter. Clearly they have a higher calling.
Claudette's curse is more than the irritating habit her lovers have of dying on her, sometimes in the act of love itself--her curse is being French. As such, she is a woman doomed to walk through life gorgeous, tragic, willing to love and drown in every pleasure imaginable, and still be acutely aware of her role on Earth as an erotic Virgin Mary for the dying. She could want a different path but the Jesus she so desperately loved as a child has personally given her the command.
The first novel from the rather jack-of-all-trades celebrity Craig Ferguson is a doozy. A highschool dropout, a boozing, drug addled stand-up comedian in Glasgow, a sometime scriptwriter, a man who was turned down at his "Braveheart" audition for "not sounding authentically Scottish" and finally a man who broke through in America on the popular "Drew Carey Show" to become the profane yet endearing host of "The Late Late Show", certainly had inspiration to draw from. He could have misfired wildy, but here, I don't think he does.
The storylines in this novel are all delicately hung on improbable premises that when shaken could easily shatter. Do it yourself religion, miracles, visitations from Jesus, visitations from Jung, walks through the afterlife, fairy tales, unexplained connections with serial killers that have no weight on the rest of the story, all take place here. Destiny pulls these characters, the fight against it, also drives them. The prose and stories very much show the influence of Ferguson's heroes, Douglas Adams and Monty Python, colliding with an acid riddled session on an overpaid psychiatrist's couch. We are asked to accept these stories early on with the reminder that there is no scientific reason for a bumblebee's ability to fly, if we can accept that, we can accept this.
Another driving force of this novel's story is America. Not the shining, saccharine America that is sold in glossy Hollywood movies, nor the smarmy dripping with unredeemable evil America that the rest of the world shakes their head at. What he has successfully done, is take both of these Americas and combined them into a creature as coppery and weathered as Lady Liberty herself. Ferguson became an American citizen two years ago, spoke at the White House Correspondance dinner and is an unabashed patriot of his adopted country, warts and all. "I once passed by a grocery in Arkansas," he quipped on his show, "And I saw a sign that said beer, fireworks and guns sold here! And I thought to myself, 'Now THIS is my America! This is why I love this country!'"
The characters Saul and Leon are sucked early on into a searingly American clan of Christians who dance with poisonous snakes to prove their faith. This could have easily turned into a satire on "backwards America", a chance to point and laugh at things that even Americans laugh at. Ferguson, however, looks at this part of the country with an amazingly sympathetic eye. The American Hillbilly might be an uneducated, superstitious sort, but they still have a heart and decency that the cynical elite mock. White America, Ferguson writes, longs for the nostalgia of an America that never existed, and for the most part does not understand the irony in a lot of the history they've created, but there is a pull and a power to it that is both dazzling and terrifying.
There are micro-stories within this novel. Characters that pass through and within one or two paragraphs their private lives, habits and tragic ends are scrolled by and we never hear from them again. This is the writing of someone who will sit at a Starbucks and wonder if the girl passing by with the rip in her jeans is really part of something bigger in the fabric of this universe, or if her only connection to him is that they were both once atoms in the same bowl of porridge eaten by Alexander the Great.
I hope you have a fun time reading this novel. It's irreverent, perverted, hilarious, tragic, but through it all it has a heart and a willingness to believe that all of us, even the most damaged and worthless, are still capable of second chances.