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.