Ottawa in the seventies is colourless, cold, and aching for character, ripe for the taking. Two men, from different ends of society, see the opportunities: Jerry McGuinty, plasterer-turned-builder, a simple, self-made man, and Simon Struthers, with inherited wealth and position, but nothing inside him but longing. As their careers and successes run in parallel - Jerry with his new wife, Kathleen, who likes a drink even more than she likes him, and Simon with his endless affairs and intrigues - we begin to see how a landscape can be shaped by desire. When both men realise that something is missing, and go in search of it, their lives start to intersect, and the story spirals to its astonishing conclusion.
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Canadian writer Colin McAdam's Some Great Thing demonstrates much promise but shows a bit of the raggedness to be expected from an ambitious debut effort. McAdam spends nearly a quarter of the book slowly introducing his interpretation of Ottawa, experimenting with first- and third-person narration, and framing the lives of his two protagonists, Simon Struthers and Jerry McGuinty. McGuinty is an ambitious developer with a passion for plaster and for the lunch truck cook, Kathleen Herlihy. Struthers, a man crippled by the reputation of his famous father, is a civil servant in the National Capital Division. Only at the end of Part Two (of Six) do Struthers and McGuinty meet, and Part Three begins the real unfolding of the story. Some readers will have abandoned McAdam long before, during his explorations of the corrupt process for getting small business loans or in his fragmented presentation of Struthers's sexual appetites. They may also stumble over McAdam's occasional lapses into pseudo-poetry, placed in the mouths of working-class characters ("...I will tell you about a line like 'S' and the taste of the milk of lost hope.")
Yet, as McAdam moves forward, the work he has done early on establishing relationships and experimenting with form builds momentum. The ageing Struthers's sexual dalliances and his struggle to live up to the promise of the visionary Dreambook (a list of grand ideas prepared by one of the early city mandarins) lead him to seek distraction, inevitably, in a tragic passion for Kweyt Schutz, the daughter of one of his co-workers. Meanwhile, McGuinty's pursuit of "some great thing to do" manifests in sprawling suburbs, shopping malls, conflicts with Struthers over development plans, and a quest to build a relationship with his lost son.
McAdam's affinity for development and city planning makes perfect sense when considering the complexity of Some Great Thing. While it is far from perfect, there is great talent on display in the book, and McAdam's craftsman-like approach suggests he will only improve with each new construction. --Patrick O'KelleyAbout the Author:
Colin McAdam is a Canadian who grew up in Hong Kong, Denmark, England and Canada. After completing a doctorate in England, he moved to Sydney, Australia, where he now lives. His second novel, Fall, was published in 2009 to critical acclaim.
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