spanish fly recounts the adventures of one young jim mcgreary, a poor but strapping young man who grows up in the depression-era dustbowl in the U.S., in the blink-and-you-miss-it town of paradise flats, its residents suckered by speculators who promised it would be a boom town. jack's grown up not having much of anything, and at the age of 19 eventually ditches his crazy widowed father and his hometown girl to join up with a couple of grifters that introduce themselves as virgil and rose, but have a host of other names, a few that might even be real. the main action of the novel concerns these three, driving around the south, jack learning about the grifting life under their tutelage, eventually showing his own flair for scamming by coming up with new schemes to add to their repertoire, including the spanish fly scam that gives the books its title.
you can tell that ferguson did due diligence to his research of the era and the subject of grifting: he knows the difference between the short con and the long, and has virgil educate jack (and the readers) in the description of many classic cons -- perhaps a few too many since some have no bearing on the action of the novel, dragging it out. in some ways the book is a road trip through a grifting encyclopedia, and i never do really find out where i'm going.
the central question seems to whether jack's cut out for the life of a grifter: duping rubes, continually gaming the system for his own benefit, and always being ready to run; and whether it's enough for him when outside of that insular life, world war II is brewing and people are still struggling to make an honest wage; and beyond even that, is the problem of pascal's wager, and jack's own morality. i think the author handles this well, except for one significant factor. i don't really care about jack. he doesn't make a lot of sense to me, and i never really understand why he's there, or rose, or virgil (though of the characters he is the liveliest) or really anybody in this novel. i don't relate to them... they aren't boring characters but they don't have a lot of emotional impact either. and for all jack's deep thoughts, i never know what he really cares about: i know he feels sort of responsible to some people and some things, but he's never really involved in the way i need him to be, and as a consequence, i found myself unable to be as involved in his story as i wanted to be.
if you're not looking for a lot of emotional resonance, and you're hankering for trip down dusty roads, with antique cars, stopping in at carnivals, and juke joints, and eating a few pies, this may be the book for you.