In Ferguson’s reading guide to this novel he mentions that he was heartbroken while writing this novel and this statement both surprised me and not surprised me.
It starts out as a simple tale of two friends, an incident at a river and then drifting apart. Then there’s two Americans who start a religion and it seems destined that all the tales will intertwine. They do, but not in any satisfactory way.
This is not a pleasant novel. It is filled with not-very good men that do not very good things. There are women in the novel and they are the only scenery that Ferguson describes. The whole novel is action and words and no descriptions of locations, except for the women of course who are the background and the objects in the lives of the men. These women are prostitutes, wives, mothers, or -literally- put on this Earth to ease the suffering of men. As in Jesus told her that’s her purpose and that is all we know about her. There is humor, but the humor is mean-spirited asides about serial killers and terrible unhappiness in people’s lives. And there is redemption and the sort of happy ending that only a heartbroken person would find to be enough.
I did not find it funny, but I did find it interesting. Ferguson is famous in America for…his Scottish accent? I do not find him particularly funny, but he has rebranded his Scottishness and made it palatable for the comparatively prude Americans. This book was too Scottish for Americans yet too American for anyone who sympathises with Scotland. It just doesn’t work. The more I read, the longer the book seemed to be.
The side plots run on too long and the book is strongest when Ferguson dives into the macabre and uses that to focus on the lost friendship between two men. They reappear from the afterlife with the lesson of “help other soldiers”. It is a simple message, and I like that Ferguson does not try to be loftier than that. I am, however, not sure how either of these men go on to live the lesson. And I think the heartbreak Ferguson refers to ties into this. He was heartbroken, he needed to be told this lesson and so he wrote a book to tell himself. I hope he learned it along the way, but unfortunately, sometimes the stories we tell ourselves have no value for anybody else.
CBR10Bingo: Cannonball Book Club.