Colin McAdam

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"Some Great Thing"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 15, 2004)

"I'll tell you, my friend, when you own your own land, don't dig in it like some…long-hair to look for sad little memories. Dirt's the future, not the past. Change it, move it, smell it, use it. That birch is a tree, not a bone. I realized I would have to uproot it: lot eighteen where number twenty-six now stands, firm."

 

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, men always interested in giving good product for a good day's work. A blue-collar worker on a construction gang, Jerry eventually buys a small piece of land, hires some men, and builds "a hundred paper houses," houses built with walls of plasterboard, sold cheaply to other men just like him, anxious to own homes but unable to afford fine construction. Saving his profits, however, he soon embarks on a series of bigger projects, constructing "better" houses with "plaster walls for smarter people."

Jerry's unpretentious and ungrammatical story alternates with that of Simon Struthers, the wealthy son of one of the "Mandarins" of Ontario. "Slippery, hard to know, [and] potent," Simon becomes one of the most powerful men in the construction industry by virtue of his position in the National Capital Division, an independent division of government formed in 1899 to plan the land use within Canada's capital. As "green space" becomes more important to the Capital Division, the paperwork required of developers and the incidental graft within the division make obtaining permits more and more difficult for developers. Jerry sees land as offering unlimited possibilities for better lives for citizens—houses, malls, and golf courses—while 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. Whereas Jerry's tools are his construction equipment, Simon's "primary tool" is the memo.

When Jerry meets Kathleen Herlihy, who drives a yellow truck serving lunches to construction crews, he falls hopelessly in love, but his clumsy courtship of the independent Kathleen is far from smooth, and their eventual marriage even less tranquil. The difficulties of dealing with a demanding wife ("the life, hope, love, and death of me"), a new baby whom he seldom sees, and a growing business cause familiar strains to arise. Not accustomed to dealing with subtleties in his relationships, Jerry is more comfortable with the rough give-and-take among his construction workers. Simon, on the other hand, is far more comfortable around women than men, having a series of affairs with women from the office and the wives of his fellow executives. Always, these end because the women decide "there is nothing to know….you are a total stranger to me."

Eventually, Jerry's path crosses that of Simon, as he sets out to build his best subdivision ever, one that will surround a golf course. Unfortunately, some of Jerry's land falls within the green crescent that Simon controls on behalf of the National Capital Division, and Simon has his own plan to build a huge wind tunnel there. Jerry's business becomes almost totally hamstrung by the red tape of dealing with Simon Struthers and Leonard Schutz ("a pompous bladder of a man whom one despises for no reason") at the Capital Division, and his home problems become more intense with Kathleen's alcoholism and infidelity, along with his son's alienation and resentment. Simon's fixation on a 19-year-old college student, the daughter of a colleague, keep him distracted and lead to even longer delays with Jerry's applications at the Capital Division.

McAdam has done a yeoman's job of trying to make the construction industry seem an exciting subject for a novel, something he accomplishes by focusing primarily on the wounded and emotionally limited characters in the story, rather than on the industry itself. Most of the characters have been damaged by their parents or by the harsh realities they have had to face in their struggles to improve the hand fate has dealt them. Only Simon Struthers has had an easy life, so easy, in fact, that he has developed no perceptible character at all. This is one of the limitations of the novel, unfortunately, since he is a cipher with whom the reader will develop little, if any, empathy, while Jerry McGuinty commands our full attention and emotional involvement.

As the point of view alternates between Jerry and Simon, the author creates scenes which remind the reader of one-act plays, often filled with humor and irony, and inspiring the reader's empathy with Jerry, a man who works hard and whom the reader wants to succeed, if he will only open his eyes to see what is happening around him. Several scenes consist exclusively of dialogue and are easy to imagine on stage. These dialogues, however, also remind the reader of the inanities with which we pepper our everyday conversations, and some readers may become impatient with this "filler," which sometimes slows down the action and adds little to our understanding of the characters. His use of vernacular for the conversations of Jerry, Kathleen, and his construction crew does help to bring them alive and illustrate their dreams and values, while the more formal language of Simon appears to be as featureless as he is.

Ultimately, the novel focuses on the idea of land as potential, a parallel for the various goals and dreams of the characters. As Jerry discovers, his completion of his first big development is "a happy moment. I loved—I still love—being able to look at that development and turn my back on it. To turn around, or walk past it, like it's any other neighborhood that has been there for a while. That is true manhood, I tell you, it's a sign that you are becoming one of the wise ones, when you know you have created something big and you can walk right past it because it is just your modest contribution to the bigness of the world."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews


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About the Author:

Colin McAdam is the son of a Canadian diplomat, has lived in Hong Kong, Denmark, England and Barbados as well as studied at the University of Toronto and McGill, and holds a PhD in English literature from Cambridge University. He divides his time between Sydney and Montreal.

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