Almost forty, Brian Marley is his own harshest critic, his life the epitome of mediocrity, teaching English to foreigners, seeing his three-year old son on the odd visitation day. When Brian is approached by a producer/acquaintance to appear on a British reality show, Brit Pluck, Green Hell, Two Million, he seizes the opportunity. Six contestants are stranded in the jungles of Papua, New Guinea, battling each other and their environment for survival.
Brian outlasts everyone, much to his own shock, his final challenge to spend one more week alone on the island. Sure that death is just around the corner, at the end of his physical resources and his tether, Marley is filming a final message to his son when he falls from a cliff.
He wakes up, no longer surrounded by the fetid jungle but safe in the well-ordered camp of the survivors of the 1958 crash of an airplane, a De Havilland Comet IV, en route to a Commonwealth Public Schools Jamboree. The group has been stranded in New Guinea for over fifty years awaiting rescue, their enclave hidden from surveillance by low-lying clouds, organized by the efficient Headmaster Quartermain.
In this place, time stands still, out of touch with current events. It is into this half-century-old mindset that Marley arrives, his memory addled by his fall, snippets of memory taken out of context and misinterpreted by his new friends. But the tepid, socially inept Marley is a different man in the able hands of Georgina Harcourt, who takes him under her wing, prompting his recollections.
Released from his stultifying past, an uninhibited Brian basks in newfound masculinity, reluctant to acknowledge his dubious history. Eventually his memory returns and Brian is lacerated by his reality, "his poverty, his non-status, his endless failures, his entire lack of charisma and drive, his pathetic attempts at parenthood, his useless car." This insular society is shocked to discover the changes wrought in England in their absence.
Hawes takes a satirical approach to this "everyman" thrust into the spotlight, a newcomer in a colony that has lived by their wits without rescue under the rigid control of a leader who resorts to unorthodox means to ensure the safety of his charges. Not to worry; in this story everyone is a star, Headmaster Quartermain well-prepared for a world in dire need of his extraordinary vision.
A great PR machine is in motion, grinding out images and interviews, spinning fictions. Marley grapples with a bizarre reality show as agents wheel and deal for book and movie rights, Brian a magnet for anyone who has ever known him, however peripherally. Marley is a catalyst for the greatest news story in years, caught in the maw of his own ineptitude, a bumbling fool grasping an opportunity for wealth and his fifteen minutes of fame, only to question which reality really is the nightmarish jungle.