Some Great Thing, by Colin McAdam

Broken lives and wishful thinking
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Early in Colin McAdam's first novel, an Irishwoman, Kathleen, tells her companion that all that stands between people like them and "some great cold nothing" is courage. You can choose whether to be lost. "Ya sit there and ya think, so this is me... what do I do with this me. And there's some, Jerry, like you, who find some great thing to do."

That quest shapes the lives of two different men in 1970s Canada. It's a bit like being harangued by Tony Soprano and groomed by Humbert Humbert in the same novel. Jerry McGuinty, plasterer-turned-builder, develops superior housing estates and shopping malls. He sets his sights on creating a golf course with houses on green-belt land. Simon Struthers, Cambridge-educated son of an MP and director of design and land use, determines who gets to acquire land in Ottawa. Despite this power he wants to do "something grand".

Both Jerry and Simon have dreams. However, 13 neighbourhoods, 5,000 roofs and 30,000 walls leave their mark on more than just the landscape, as Jerry discovers. Memo-writing Simon, meanwhile, may see himself as "the inky part of fate" but not all that is imagined can be realised with good results.

McAdam's debut, about broken lives and passionate emotions, contains some impressive and ambitious writing. The book begins at the end with Kathleen, a hopelessly confused alcoholic, having her hair cut - although she might also be trying to buy cheese or order a drink. We meet her former partner Jerry and then Simon in short inter-cutting chapters.

But Some Great Thing gets going with Jerry's narrative. He takes us on a guided tour of his life. Despite the corrupt planners and the sites with gangs of men vibrating with verbal and physical violence, there is poetry in Jerry's heroic pride in his skill. "To plaster the simplest wall takes grace, patience, and a solid sense of how the world stands up."

Jerry's life is changed the moment the pretty Kathleen arrives with her catering van. He adores her. But Kathleen feels trapped. Once saddled with a child, she's as explosive as sodium in water.

Simon tells his story in the third person, as if honing his myth-making skills. He believes he can belong if he knows the secrets of others and so conducts affairs, spies on women, reads their files. Simon's self-deceiving narrative trails words like "sedulous" and "cereous", as if establishing his educated-to-be-isolated credentials.

Both men end up bewildered but our sympathies are not equally divided. Jerry's account has a compelling immediacy. When he catches up with his runaway teenage son, whose abuse by his whacked-out mother is glimpsed rather than revealed, the dialogue is electrifying. It's hard, however, to care about Simon's gradual sordid slide. In this world where people blanket their disappointments with alcohol, fantasy or wishful thinking, Jerry reflects, "The suspicion that we can't have what we dream of is what keeps us dreaming."