Twenty-one pages into this first novel by the hitherto unknown Montreal author Colin McAdam, Jerry McGuinty – builder, developer, loving and ineffectual husband and father – enters the story with such extraordinary aplomb that most of the Canadian novels I have read over the last five years, including many acclaimed ones, seem suddenly ordinary, their characters interchangeable, their tone familiar, and their structures wanting. After a splendid decade, Canadian fiction is showing incipient signs of being on the wane. Our novels are getting larger, a surplus of multi-generational and historical sagas have taken on the trappings of formula, and even our authors of so-called “urban” novels surprise no one any more. The bulk of Canadian fiction is in a rut.
Still, before we decide the thrill is gone, how about these few lines to set a new standard?
Thirteen neighbourhoods, five thousand roofs, thirty thousand outside walls, and a rock-hard pair of hands. That is what I have built. I have laid iron, I have laid iron mesh, I have breathed more iron filings than the men who built the railroads. And I have plastered.
My father was a plasterer.
His father was a plasterer. His father’s father was a plasterer (and plastering was the death of his father). I, my friend, am a plasterer. Lean forward here and I will show you my card.
Now hold on, what is happening?
We have a builder for a hero, and Ottawa as the locale, in a novel that’s often very funny?
I found out about Some Great Thing last August, when the book’s U.K. editor, Robin Robertson at Jonathan Cape, sent it to me with a note describing it as the best first novel he had read since Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief. (Robertson, who was MacLeod’s editor in Britain, is not given to easy praise.) At the time, McAdam, a protégé of the poet Anne Carson’s who had recently returned to Canada from Australia,had no Canadian publisher. Then it was pointed out to his American agent that the novel would not be eligible for Canada’s most prestigious fiction prize, the Giller, were Harcourt’s American copies merely distributed here. There was a late scramble for Canadian rights, which Raincoast won. Certainly, Some Great Thing must be considered, already, a shoo-in for this year’s prize short lists.
Some Great Thing tells the story of two thirty-something men living in Ottawa in the 1970s, at a time when the capital was burgeoning. Jerry McGuinty, the aforementioned builder, is one. Simon Struthers, a priapic and vapid bureaucrat who has acquired his position through family and not merit, is the other. To the degree that such a book is possible in Canada, Some Great Thing is, among other things, a novel about class. Simon, aware of his own privilege, is one of those children of Ottawa mandarins (just how many are there?) who appear quietly destined, as was our current prime minister, for political office. Where McGuinty is a man of action, filled with a sense of possibility, his body hardened by use and his ambition by necessity, he is also at the receiving end of life’s events. Struthers, his career path orchestrated since boyhood, is effete and slight, but able, through the privilege of his class and position, to cause actions that have consequences. He does not accomplish much, though he sleeps with women a lot. He is a predator, mostly of himself. He is full of self-regard, but he does not share McGuinty’s self-possession.
Struthers and McGuinty cross paths only once, in a meeting without consequence, and yet their lives intersect. Through the parallel course of their two stories, McAdam creates an amusing and quite genuine portrait of our corner of the New World – of Canada, as much as the nation’s capital. Both places are new, quite possibly dull – and invented. Ottawa, after all, is a project even more artificial than the country is, and the need to develop it is what ties the stories of the two men together. The urge is personal in the builder’s case – what the poet Tim Lilburn calls “the entrepreneurial look, the remodeling gaze” – and abstract in the bureaucrat’s. Land! McGuinty wants it; Struthers controls it. McGuinty sees Ottawa’s Greenbelt not as some wilderness in which survival is the issue, but as space, that’s all – space to make lives better, and easier. McGuinty is a developer. He is not intimidated by nature; he shifts it around, fills it in. He wants to develop houses, malls, and towns, sees “progress blowing from one block to the next like seeds in a springtime field.” He has no pretence about any of the rural or “environmental” properties the acres he needs to build on might possess.
Anybody who has travelled to Ottawa by air knows the land McGuinty craves – it’s what remains of the forlorn stretch of uninteresting forest that divides the airport from the city, physically unappealing land that might as well have been developed. It has the National Research Council’s wind tunnel on it now, and this, it turns out, was Struthers’s unusual plan for the same land. A long bureaucratic correspondence, in which Struthers is expert (“his primary tool was the memo, the oldest and noblest form of official advice, born with bureaucracy itself”) impedes McGuinty and determines the relationship between the two. Does this creed sound familiar, anyone?
When Simon’s job was created, the words ‘culture’, ‘heritage’, ‘values’ and ‘future generations’ were mumbled into coffee and were gradually growing louder. The Government knew what it needed for itself, more or less, and it now felt responsible for setting in the landscape an idea of what it was to be Canadian.
One of the distinct pleasures of Some Great Thing is the degree to which its author understands work and its place in our lives. He understands the comedy and the consequences of it, knows how we identify ourselves by it – he’s interested in it. Of course Struthers is a bureaucrat – and of course, being one, he is not inclined to see the problems in front of him, let alone deal with them, even when they lie in his own character. Of course, as McGuinty is a builder, he would believe that he can fix things, anything, and not see that broken family members will not be repaired unless they choose to be. McAdam sees that particular folk are drawn to work of a particular kind and that, in turn, doing that work shapes character.
It would be silly to make a rule of it, but perhaps the author who writes from away – that select writers’ school from which many of any country’s best novelists still graduate – is more likely to notice the obvious and the telling in what might otherwise be too near to see clearly. Canadian writers tend to work so hard to find their subjects, too hard, as if they are not convinced by what is familiar unless it is sufficiently contrived – and therefore new and at the cutting edge. McAdam – writing for readers who do not live in this country, perhaps? – plumbs terrain so close at hand that, after reading him, you cannot quite believe that no writer in this country has introduced you to Jerry McGuinty or Simon Struthers before. Not everyone may have employed a contractor, but who has not lived in a house? And who has not been appalled by stalling, corrupt, or otherwise useless government? (If you say no to the last, then you can’t be reading this in Nova Scotia, Ontario, or British Columbia, certainly.) This is what is most refreshing about McAdam’s book – the sheer ability to find material in panoramas that even the freshest “new” voices in Canadian fiction have overlooked.
McGuinty – winning some battles, losing others, never quite in control – is one of those infrequent characters in fiction whose emblematic aspects are conveyed without ever distracting the reader from the immediacy of his company on the page. He is in the line of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, or that earlier developer in Canadian fiction, Duddy Kravitz. He is true to the time in which he is located and presented, just as Willy Loman was to an America that had outgrown him, Bascombe was to the United States crowded and faltering as it reached middle age, or Kravitz to a Canada reluctantly accommodating Montreal’s striving second generation of immigrant Jews. But McGuinty, unlike Kravitz, is neither mean nor duplicitous. He’s a fundamentally decent man, keen on opportunity, though not social standing. Living well is good enough for him.
Life happens, however. It cannot always be managed, and when McGuinty causes an accident that almost kills his wife, Kathleen, he discovers how much of other people’s unhappiness – and in particular hers – he has failed to notice while constructing his way to a better life. At one point, when chasing down his runaway son, McGuinty stops in a shopping mall and finds himself in awe of all that he has been missing.
Look at the man looking for an electric knife, the granny looking for a bluer rinse, the woman here looking for the right speckled frame for her glasses. They depress me, my friend. They’re all looking for something, and their sad little faces are telling me there’s a reason for their looking and it’s not roast beef or a weak shade of blue. There’s something outside, I tell you, and it’s making them all come in here, something scary, something waiting for all of them.
I’m sitting there chinning my thoughts, having a cup of coffee, and I recall my Jerry and the reason I’m in the mall. My Jerry. I realise that to him I am probably that thing outside, that reason for getting lost in knick-knacks and the faces of strangers.
My quiet friend, let us take this moment to weigh the heaviness of that thought.
The novel is not without – well, indulgences, more than faults. A peroration on the Greek mythological figure Atalanta does not sit entirely well and a section on Struthers’s courtship of a gamine McGill student, Kwyet, has a slightly timid feel to it – as if the rookie McAdam had, in a shaky seventh inning, balked. But there is pathos and also wit in Some Great Thing, plenty of it, and McAdam’s wonderful ear for dialogue puts to shame the legion of Canadian writers who, asbad radio playwrights often do, tendto see conversation as an opportunity for a bit of authorial steering – though, something to ponder, the first nineteen pages of Some Great Thing are entirely the dialogue of Kathleen’s later alcoholic incoherence. Clearly an artistic choice had to be made here – to start here, as McAdam did, or with “The Story of Jerry McGuinty,” which begins on the novel’s utterly startling twenty-first page. The end redeems the choice – though, in truth, it’s the latter I hand to people as an introduction to the book.
In the end, Some Great Thing was always going to be McGuinty’s story. Like Amis’s early novels, the last ones that unequivocally satisfied his readers (Success, Money, London Fields), or Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Some Great Thing is one of those infrequent “literary” novels that are likely to do extremely well because unlikely readers – i.e. men – will buy them and they will hand them on and let others know about them. On such ordinary gestures the success of a novel is built, regardless of the endorsement of prizes. Appearing from nowhere, bursting with energy, here is a character-driven novel to reinvigorate Canadian fiction just as it was appearing tired, on auto-pilot, and bankrupt of technique, if not ideas. It arrives at a time when there are simply far too many Canadian novels whose elaborate constructions render their characters secondary to whatever is the intent of their sweeping dramas. Above all, Some Great Thing is hugely entertaining, and God knows, Canadian readers don’t get to say that very often.