October 13, 2005


Unlikely Exploits #1: The Fall of Fergal. By Philip Ardagh. Scholastic. $5.99.

     Philip Ardagh is determined to follow up his delightful Eddie Dickens Trilogy with another delightful trilogy – but, at least in this first book, he’s a little too determined.  The Fall of Fergal seems to be trying too hard to be funny, offbeat, morbid and weird, all at the same time.  Among the Eddie Dickens books, the first – A House Called Awful End – was the best, with Dreadful Acts and Terrible Times not quite at the same level.  In this new trilogy, one has to hope that Ardagh will reverse things and get better as he goes along.

     The Fall of Fergal begins with the fall of Fergal McNally from a 14th-floor window in a hotel.  Fergal is thoroughly smushed, and no, it does not turn out to be a dream or an alternative universe or an imaginary sequence or a video game.  Fergal is well and truly splatted onto the pavement, leaving Ardagh with the task of preventing the rest of the book from being an anticlimax.  He does this by flashing back to the events that led to Fergal being at the window, while occasionally flashing forward to remind us that Fergal really has been removed from the story even though you are reading about him.  It all gets a bit confusing as well as more than a bit morbid, which is fine if you like that sort of thing.

     If you do, you’ll enjoy this story of the McNally family, which is headed by a nasty one-legged father named Rufus McNally – a war hero whose personality disintegrated when he lost his leg.  Actually, the McNally children are under the care of “older older sister Jackie,” who is old enough almost to be her siblings’ mother even though she isn’t, and about whom Ardagh throws in a weird secret toward the end that he says readers should have figured out but that you really can’t unless you read the book back-to-front.

     In this story, Le Fay McNally travels to town to be in the finals of the Tap ‘n’ Type typing competition, and her siblings have to find a way to join her and root for her.  In addition to Jackie and the unfortunate Fergal, the siblings include Albie and Joshua, “almost-identical twins” who travel on a single bus ticket (the family being desperately poor) because “Jackie hoped that if they kept on the move and took it in turns to hide in the loo, the bus driver would think that they were one and the same person.”  Also featured here are a ventriloquist with a large mustache, who turns out to have an important role in the typing competition, and a hotel detective nicknamed Twinkle-Toes who does not have a major role in the competition but has a highly important part in the end-of-book climax (not to be confused with the start-of-book defenestration climax).  There is much self-reference here by Ardagh, who keeps pointing out how witty he is instead of just going and being witty as in some of his other books.  Still, The Fall of Fergal is fun in many spots (not bloodspots), and perhaps later books in the trilogy will rise a bit higher.

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