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Some Great Thing [Paperback]

Colin McAdam
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Feb. 8 2005
The paperback edition of Colin McAdam's acclaimed debut about a builder and a bureaucrat battling in Ottawa. With energy, humour and poetry, McAdam depicts a world of ambition and desire, power and corruption.

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From Amazon

Readers may be excused for approaching Colin McAdam's Some Great Thing, a historical novel set in 1970s Ottawa, with a degree of cynicism. While the popularity of historical novels has never been stronger, the genre has reached the point of exhaustion, with most recent books being little more than moralizing reconsiderations of the past. Thankfully, Some Great Thing reverses the course of this trend by returning to the genre's roots--not by rewriting history, but by exploring how history came to be made in the first place.

In this case, the history of Ottawa is shaped by the passions of two men: house developer Jerry McGuinty and bureaucrat Simon Struthers. McGuinty is obsessive in his desire for Kathleen, a free-spirited woman he eventually marries. But McGuinty is also obsessed with fantasies of building a city out of the empty land around Ottawa--of building the future. His desire to build perfect neighbourhoods consumes him, and he is unable to see his home life falling into ruin until it's too late. Similarly, Struthers's desire to leave a legacy leads to his quest to create some sort of lasting monument in the developing city, but this passion becomes entangled with his yearnings for a young woman, with disastrous results.

The lives of the two men intersect over the course of the novel, and their interactions shape the development of Ottawa itself. Not surprisingly, the city's history is one of broken dreams and failures, of corruption and the desire for power winning out over visions and ideals. Out of this bleak material, however, a story of redemption and self-discovery slowly emerges. McAdam's characters apply the basic premise of the historical novel--reconstruction of the past--to themselves, and they explore their own lives not only to make amends for the past, but also to find new ways of living in the present. --Peter Darbyshire --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Urban planning and construction in Ottawa, Canada, might seem like dull subjects on which to build a novel, but in this compelling, bawdy debut, McAdam fashions them into powerful metaphors for the ambitions and personalities of two opposing characters, Jerry McGuinty and Simon Struthers. An introverted construction worker whose most reliable expression is "fuckin eh," McGuinty dreams of building better houses than the shoddy tract homes he's hired to plaster; eventually, he becomes one of the most powerful developers of suburban Ottawa. Struthers, on the other hand, is the master of the charming, vapid bureaucratic memo; the government's director of design and land use, he has a reputation for a smooth tongue in the office and among the ladies. Distracted by one love affair after another, Struthers feels age erode his promise until he becomes desperate to accomplish some great public works projectâ€"on the same piece of land where McGuinty is determined to build his most magnificent housing community yet. Fans of Martin Dressler will appreciate McAdam's attention to the mechanics of real estate development, but his forceful, cartwheeling prose style is more akin to that of Dermot Healy or Lawrence Sterne. His first-person narrators wink and hint at the reader, and he sometimes indulges in stream of consciousness or other formal play. Some of these sections have more flash than substanceâ€"the book's least successful bit is its first 20 pages. But McAdam redeems himself by fusing his housing narrative with a thoughtful exploration of the dynamics of home, where the relationships between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, can often be more loving than those between husband and wife. Technical prowess and a surprising empathy mark McAdam as a writer to watch.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Virtuoso performance Oct. 26 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
MacAdam's novel is a great and lasting achievement, a book that will be read for year's to come in this country and around the world. That he should have such a deft ability to create such different and convincing voices in what is his first novel is deeply impressive. MacAdam displays a brilliant range of tone and emotion. The book is funny, sad, dark, scabrous and ultimately humane and optimistic. One gets to know the characters as if one has walked in on the middle of their lives. There is no omniscient authorial presence telling us how to feel or who to trust. As in life, one works this sort of thing out as events unfold. While some might find this cimematic, even epigrammatic, style to be difficult at first, it ultimately proves to be one of the great strengths of the book. The scenes jump cut from one to the next, and jigsaw-puzzle-like, one gradually develops a view of the whole world the the book contains. One arrives at the end of the book with an organic sense of how the lives of the characters came to be the way they are. The journey along the way is filled with brilliant, poetic, hard-edged, profound and engaging writing. Get this book and read it.
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Format:Hardcover
Colin McAdam's 'Some Great Thing' is a book that explores the lives of the creators of Ottawa; its two protagonists, Jerry McGuinty and Simon Struthers are responsible for the expansion of Ottawa, but much like their lives, this expansion spirals out of control before either of them realize it.

Its braided narrative is quite a nice touch and gives us insight into both the characters' personal lives, and their business endeavors. Jerry McGuinty is clearly the hero in McAdam's novel, but although Simon is unlikeable, his desperation, obsession and letdowns are remarkably redeeming and endearing, though they are indeed pathetic.

The novel has some mildly interesting side characters, very strong and ambitious dialogue, great poetic structure and word play, and very relatable for anyone who has spent time in Ottawa, past or present.

Although not the best read in the world and at times, if you are unfamiliar with the inner workings of the building industry, a bit tedious and confusing, McAdam has great insight into the human psyche and the saddest and happiest most human moments of 'Some Great Thing' are absolutely inspiring.
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Of interest to Ottawans Aug. 3 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
I found it interesting to try and figure out which real people the author had in mind with this story of family breakdown, and the building industry in Canada. The style is quirky, and can be hard to follow as the voice changes. I found it a bit of a struggle. I don't think I would recommend it.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For those interested in "New School" fiction... March 11 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"Some Great Thing" is a well-above average piece of writing and an absorbing story (at least the sections that involve Jerry). It far exceeds most debut fiction. The most compelling sections integrate the growing pains of rapidly expanding Ottawa in the 70's with the much more excruciating pain of a family breaking apart due to neglect and alcohol abuse. Listening (and that's fairly accurate given the narrative style) to Jerry, with his rough workday speech, describe his ascent from blue-collar plasterer to real estate empire-maker is mesmerizing. The hints of familial disaster that surface early in the book suggest something in sharp contrast to Jerry's sturdy construction projects. Ideas about the city, the neighborhood, Jerry's family, and Jerry himself are beautifully intertwined.
The other prominent storyline is not as memorable. Maybe it's just the subject matter - a self-absorbed, womanizing bureaucrat well practiced in the art of governmentspeak. We get no clear vision of Simon (he doesn't really have a clear idea of himself so maybe that's the point). His delusional obsession with Kwyet and his vacillations over the future of the park don't inspire the same passion as Jerry's singleminded drive to leave his mark on the world, at the expense of his family.
Overall, I would recommend this book for those who read regularly, particularly if you enjoy exploring "modern" narrative techniques and are willing to take a chance with a newly published writer.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Working Class Great Gatsby April 10 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is simply one of the finest novels - first or fifth - to be published in the english language in many years. My friends from Canada have been raving about it and I'll admit I was skeptical as I approached (anything with that much advance hype tends to disappoint). But the book exceeds all expectations. It's a sensation in Canada for a reason: it's brilliant, utterly original and a brave braid of two completely different voices within a complicated, sophisticated story structure. At the center is Jerry - big hearted, powerful and ambitious. At his side is Cathleen - boozy, tragic and crazy (a gritty Daisy Buchanan). Their rise and fall - all told in dizzying prose - is the stuff of great literature. Colin McAdam is without a doubt one of the most talented writers on the planet today. After the prizes inevitably reign down on this book, McAdam will be a household name. I can't wait to see what he does next.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Dirt's the future, not the past. Change, move, use it." April 10 2004
By Mary Whipple - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The bull-dozing, digging, grading, and construction in Ottawa in the 1970s serve as metaphors for the ambitions and dreams of two men, whose parallel lives exist on completely different planes until they briefly intersect at the height of their careers. Jerry McGuinty, an up-by-the-bootstraps contractor comes from a family of plasterers, a man dedicated to giving good product for a good day's work. Simon Struthers, the wealthy son of one of the "Mandarins" of Ontario, on the other hand, is a powerful administrator in the National Capital Division, an independent division of government formed in 1899 to plan the land use within Canada's capital. While Jerry sees land as offering unlimited possibilities of houses, malls, and golf courses, Simon sees land as a resource to be conserved, not for the sake of conservation so much as to keep the demand high, his own power intact, and his importance enhanced.
Jerry's unpretentious and ungrammatical story alternates with that of Simon, and their paths cross when Jerry sets out to build a subdivision that will surround a golf course. As Jerry's business becomes almost totally hamstrung by the red tape at the Capital Division, his home problems intensify with his wife's alcoholism and infidelity, along with his son's alienation and resentment. Simon, unable to make any sort of commitment in his private life, also delays action on Jerry's permits.
McAdam has tried to make the construction industry an exciting subject for a novel by focusing on the emotionally limited characters in the story, rather than on the industry itself. Unfortunately, Simon Struthers, one of the main characters, is a cipher with whom the reader will develop little, if any, genuine connection, while Jerry McGuinty commands our full attention and emotional involvement. With the point of view alternating between Jerry and Simon, the author creates scenes reminiscent of one-act plays, often filled with humor and irony, and inspiring the reader's empathy with Jerry. Several scenes consist entirely of dialogue and are easy to imagine on stage, but these dialogues also remind the reader of the inanities with which we pepper our everyday conversations, and some readers may become impatient with this conversational "filler." Ultimately, the novel focuses on the idea of land as potential, a parallel for the goals and dreams of the characters, which for Jerry is "something big you can walk right past...your modest contribution to the bigness of the world." Mary Whipple
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A big, volatile voice for big, contentious themes May 10 2004
By Lynn Harnett - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Canadian author McAdam opens with a series of short, semi-coherent dialogues between raving drunk Kathleen Herlihy and her hairdresser and her liquor-delivery man. This is not how I, the average reader, would advise a new writer to begin his debut novel, but McAdam's voice - and prose - is strong enough to get away with it.
Besides, I peeked. Normal narrative was just around the corner. So I was able to sit back and enjoy the brief soliloquies and authorial interjections, which introduce the next two characters, Ottawa builder and developer Jerry McGuinty, and wealthy bureaucrat Simon Struthers.
Jerry, the primary narrator, has a vigorous voice, straight from his ambitious, working-class heart. From the vantage point of a tenuous reunion with his just-grown son, he looks back over a life of consuming ambition and familial neglect, or at least willful blindness.
Jerry, a plasterer and the son and grandson of plasterers, starts life wanting something more than a weekly wage. Housing developments are booming around 1970s Ottawa, and Jerry deplores the flimsy structures he's building for someone else. He dreams of buying land and building better houses. Then he meets Kathleen Herlihy, who runs a lunch van and renders him speechless.
"It wasn't fear and it wasn't shyness, really, it was just the thought that this woman handing me a sandwich is what the world will always yearn for as it grows."
Canny, sardonic Kathleen coaches him on how to approach the bank and he credits her for his first scary loan, his first real start. But Kathleen has problems. She disappears sometimes for weeks at a time. Her temper is unpredictable. She moves into her van. She drinks. When she gets pregnant Jerry moves her into his first development and they have little Jerry. Jerry relates all this with awe and bewilderment. His days were consumed with building, buying, selling and juggling debt. Kathleen was difficult: mercurial and angry at his absences, unfulfilled by motherhood.
Simon's story is less directly told. Point-of-view, primarily third person subjective, shifts intermittently to an authorial first person. Simon, a functionary with the agency that ultimately controls Ottawa's shape and direction, is so self-absorbed that it's unclear how much his vision of himself is real. A womanizer with a Lolita fixation on Kwyet, the daughter of a bribe-taking colleague, Simon pursues affairs with co-workers (and Kwyet's mother) until they tire of him:
" `Mr. Struthers, to me you are a cipher. A mystery once, and now a perfect zero.'
She was so offensive as to be arousing."
Nothing really touches him, though he fears she's right. He hides his fear behind that aloof mysteriousness. The son of a prominent politician, Simon dreams of leaving his own historic mark. He borrows a visionary project straight from "the dreambook," a collection of whimsical plans too preposterous or expensive ever to come to fruition. A scientific project, with lasting benefits for city and country: a wind tunnel. And he has just the piece of land.
The same piece Jerry McGuinty has his eye on for his own crowning glory. Luxury homes overlooking a state-of-the-art golf course. Jerry hates golf and all it stands for, but he hires a specialized architect, and pours money into land the government has yet to let him buy.
While Jerry determinedly ties himself in knots of red tape, Kathleen continues her downward spiral. Infidelity, alcoholism - obvious in retrospect, but Jerry, as self-absorbed as Simon in his own big-hearted way, never had a clue. An automobile accident lands her in the hospital, and reveals her cirrhosis, but Jerry still dismisses the facts.
"I didn't have time to look after her, because the rest of the world was humming, you know, white hot, so Jerry did a lot of the looking after, a lot of the fetching and what have you."
A year of this, another hospitalization and young Jerry, 14, has had enough. He doesn't come home. And big Jerry's world finally begins to implode.
McAdam's prose is confident, bold, and active; his images sharp and humorous and imaginative. Jerry is a wonderful character, both deeply flawed and heroic. He's a man in whom strength and weakness feed off each other, a man whose willfulness is as destructive as it is powerful.
The framework of real estate development, growth, corruption and bureaucratic maneuvering, works both to advance the sprawling plot and as a metaphor for the characters of the men. Jerry bulls ahead, his visions solid and concrete and immediate, but blinkered, while Simon guards his power and prestige, is not above underhanded coercion, and envisions the monumental as his personal legacy.
Get through the first 20 pages and McAdam will grab you and not let go until the last page is turned. A strong beginning to a promising career.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars DOESNT GLITTER IN PLOT, BUT A SPIRITED, UNFETTERED DEBUT March 31 2004
By Shashank Tripathi - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I picked this up as a chance trial at an airport book stand, knowing nothing about the author. Discovered that this is a debut, and it's quite an impressive one! The story is grounded in the Canadian construction industry, which may at first make you expect very few thrills 'n chills, but McAdam's prose is brash, ribald and bursts with energy. Even a relatively wry plot about a family's misfortunes and disintegration thereof is lent some readibaility by a clever denouement that weaves in the conflicting ambitions of two very different men. Quite a worthy read, but I would also consider buying a used copy.
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