Friday, May 6, 2011

Review: American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot, by Craig Ferguson

Craig Ferguson is a funny guy - unless you're Jimmy Fallon, you don't get a late-night talk show by being boring. He's also a guy who went through the wringer with alcohol and debt before he finally making it as a comic actor/writer after fifteen years on the second string. His gift with words isn't in his ability to weave together long, fluid narratives - it's an uncanny expository ability which allows you to see - simply and with a minimum of fuss - exactly where he comes from. His ability to explain alcoholism and how it messed up his is perhaps my defining memory from reading his autobiography, American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.

I was first introduced to Ferguson as Lister's personified Confidence in an episode of Red Dwarf called Confidence and Paranoia. In said episode, he played a character with a deep, scheister-like mid-Atlantic accent, "like Bing Baxter, the American quiz-show host". Although aware of his work since (particularly as Mr. Wick in The Drew Carey Show), he next captured my attention when hosting an episode of his late night show last November given over to my favourite TV show, Doctor Who. The irony of a man I first knew as an American in a British Sci-Fi sitcom now being a Scot in an American TV format wasn't lost on me - it was, as he seems to be, charming.

Ferguson tries hard to sew together a fractured narrative with an overriding wish to live and work in America - the land of milk and honey (or in his early days, cocaine and Stolichnaya). Though most definitely true, it seems to me to be a muddled way of linking together his life story, but serves mostly to position his memoir for the nearly mutually exclusive British and US autobiography markets. It's always off in the distance but never real. Most of the work is heavy with hindsight and introspection where he's been able to rationalise - but not justify - the mistakes of his past, admit to his youthful shortcomings and portray them in an amusing, but touching way: descriptions of those he hurt while a misguided 1980s party-boy are particularly effective.

As much as he's spent most of the past twenty years here, was naturalised in 2009 and counts his sons as American, he's explains succinctly on closing how citizenship in a global society becomes more a state of mind, rather than a birthright - a mindset dictated often by your experiences and choices. As a new resident of the United States myself, I found this particularly poignant. Ferguson, a Scotsman with staunch Celtic roots, is able to identify with both the people of his birthplace and of his adopted homeland so well that American on Purpose becomes less a showbiz autobiography and more an inspirational piece of self-help literature.

When selecting the book, I hoped for an amusing, yet thoughtful approach from a Briton on a topic which currently vexes me. I chose well. As my life appears set to remain on these shores for the foreseeable future, my inner battle as to my (and any future kids') nationality is an issue which unsettles me in a deep, but non-violent way: I identify myself as an Aussie but accept that a full life in America demands my embracing the country - in all it's self-promoting, freedom-spouting - and occasionally gun-toting - beauty.

As my personal battle for self-identity begins, Ferguson's ends. I could do much worse than learning from his example. Footballs.

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