Some Great Thing

Some Great Thing

3.0 1
by Colin McAdam

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In his highly acclaimed debut novel, Colin McAdam depicts the struggle between two men involved in building a city’s future: developer Jerry McGuinty, blue collar, selfmade, a master craftsman, and Simon Struthers, a civil servant from a prominent, wealthy background who shapes land-use policy. Jerry has a blind spot for his alcoholic wife, and Simon moves


In his highly acclaimed debut novel, Colin McAdam depicts the struggle between two men involved in building a city’s future: developer Jerry McGuinty, blue collar, selfmade, a master craftsman, and Simon Struthers, a civil servant from a prominent, wealthy background who shapes land-use policy. Jerry has a blind spot for his alcoholic wife, and Simon moves between women, consumed by a frantic emptiness. When their two stories begin to intertwine, their lives and ambitions are set on a collision course. A richly observed story of family, class, love and the individual contributions we make to the bigness of the world, Some Great Thing is a powerful work from one of the most exciting voices of his generation.

Editorial Reviews

Noah Richler
...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.... Appearing from nowhere, bursting with energy, here is a character-drive novel to reinvigorate Canadian fiction just as it was appearing tired... Some Great Thing is hugely entertaining, and God knows, Canadian readers don't get to say that very often.
The Walrus
Lev Raphael
… McAdam displays a superb ear for dialogue, especially when his characters are ranting or lying about what they want. In the end, Some Great Thing is a novel about the fruitless longing to create something that will withstand the savage fist of time. Despite the roar of earth movers, the clack of bricks being laid in course after course and the scrape of plastering, the spirit of Shelley's "Ozymandias" hangs over it all.
The Washington Post
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 project 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 substance 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. Agent, Bill Clegg. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Harcourt debut fiction: two men on a collision course in hopped-up 1970s Ottawa. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The careers of a homebuilder and a bureaucrat converge on the booming fringe of Ottawa. McAdam's debut flexes considerable muscle once it settles down from a jittery beginning in the minds of Jerry McGuinty, an understandably inarticulate, up-from-nothing builder and his cirrhotic, delusional, estranged wife Kathleen. Carefully constructing McGuinty's progress up the ranks from gofer to drywall drudge to plaster artist to developer, McAdam tackles concurrently the rise of Simon Struthers, a thoroughly unpleasant bureaucrat, a bachelor with a bad habit of boffing the wives of his co-workers and, when appropriate, his co-workers. Struthers, son of an MP, independently wealthy, and totally amoral, drifts into semipotency in a department with controls over city development, a course that will place his one real project, a greenbelt, square in the path of Jerry McGuinty's subdivisions. McGuinty's ambitions and work ethic absorb him totally and leave him oblivious both to Irish-born Kathleen's hard-to-miss alcoholism and to the wretched life of their only son. He also manages to miss the fact that Kathleen pretty much loathes him and would gladly chuck husband, son, and the succession of bigger homes to return to her loose life running a lunch wagon from one construction site to the next. What works here is the portrait of Jerry and the insight into the rough world and odd priorities of the people who shape the houses most of us live in and are occasionally mystified by. Less believable is the utter corruption of the urban mandarin who, when he is not meddling with progress, spends an astonishing amount of time peering into the windows of his ladyloves, one of whom is much, much too young. Thedisintegration of the McGuintys' wretched family is made palatable by a clever denouement that knits up the ambitions of the two men. The construction business is on solid ground, the bureau is a little shaky. Agent: Bill Clegg/Burnes & Clegg
From the Publisher
Praise for Some Great Thing

"The novel presents many voices, all of them mesmerizing . . . McAdam displays a superb ear for dialogue."
—Washington Post

“A powerful, poetic, bawdily funny, and tenderly sad novel about class, about love, about drink, about poetics, about land, and about money—a few of the salient things that life and history are made of.”
O, The Oprah Magazine

“This brash, ribald first novel bursts with energy and spirit . . . Some Great Thing is a boisterous, uncompromising debut.”

"McAdam's narrative weaves in virtuoso dialogue as well as genuine warmth . . . This is a big and staggeringly confident book."
—The Observer

"Compelling . . . Technical prowess and a surprising empathy mark McAdam as a writer to watch."
—Publishers Weekly, STARRED Review

"McAdam's debut flexes considerable muscle."
—Kirkus Reviews

Praise for A Beautiful Truth

"Remarkable...disarmingly familiar and richly, movingly strange."
—Wall Street Journal

"If A Beautiful Truth lingers long after it is read — and I promise you, it will — it’s because even as Looee becomes a son for Walt and Judy, he becomes for the rest of us a heartbreaking guide to how we treat our closest living relatives."
Barbara J. King, author of How Animals Grieve writing for the Washington Post

"A Beautiful Truth does an amazing job at telling the stories of chimpanzees in captivity today and it also helps people understand why these amazing souls should be loved, respected and protected in their natural habitat. We hope everyone reads this book and comes to see Chimpanzees as we do."
—Jo Sullivan, Executive Director of Save the Chimps

"McAdam's language reaches into that mysterious place where a word ends and a feeling begins. A Beautiful Truth is a story about love and beauty and our dreams for our children and our inescapable loneliness. The characters, human and animal, are sad and honest and true. I could not put this novel down, and only when I finished it could I breathe again."
—Kim Echlin, author of The Disappeared

"A work of exquisite sensitivity and prowess, McAdams' tale is of two species astride not a divide but a continuum, of our longings and resiliencies and the fate we share: being stronger than we are evolved."
Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium

"Haunting. Heartbreaking.... it is a tale of empathy and honesty, deftly told and beautifully rendered."
—Will Ferguson, Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of 419

“As brutal as it is compassionate, A Beautiful Truth collapses the gaps between humans and chimpanzees, bringing us ever closer to the recognition that what we do to the chimps in our care has the moral power to indict us or to set us free, for in so many ways they are us and we are them.”
Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods

"McAdam teases and turns around language, giving us a creative and wondrous portrait of nonhuman society from the inside out." 

“If the book were simply the story of the Ribkes and Looee, A Beautiful Truth would still be a remarkable achievement. But the narrative’s radical other half, which unfolds in loosely alternate chapters and focuses on a group of chimpanzees in a Florida research institute, invoking their perspective, lends the novel a rare depth… McAdam’s acknowledgements attest to serious secondary reading—Frans de Waal and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh are both cited—but his depiction of simian life’s limitations turns research into rhapsodic lamentation.”
—The Times Literary Supplement

“[A BEAUTIFUL TRUTH] deftly explores the mind of a domesticated ape...a serious, thoughtful piece of work.”
—The Telegraph

“The narrative [of A BEAUTIFUL TRUTH] doesn’t just show humans interacting with primates. Inventively, McAdam, gives them a narrative voice and point of view...the effect is jarring. McAdam has had to create a new language.”
—The Scotsman

“Kafka’s sketch [A Report to an Academy] is an enduring satire on the kinship between humans and primates. McAdam’s novel is an earnest, daring and insistent attempt to show the moral implications of that kinship.”
Toronto Globe and Mail, Best Book of the Year Selection

"A moving, deeply researched novel."
—Tampa Bay Times

"A Beautiful Truth manages to parlay long established and widely disseminated scientific and anthropological facts into gripping and thought-provoking fiction... [McAdam] clearly conducted much research for this book." 
—The Miami Herald 

"Splendid....McAdam explores the unhappy history of humans adopting chimpanzees as playthings, curios and family members. Yet in a year when the National Institutes of Health has begun to formally retire its roster of medical-research chimps, McAdam's novel also sounds an elegy for the chimpanzees who spent their lives in laboratories... At its heart, “A Beautiful Truth” is about voice - who's talking, who's listening, what's understood and what's not. McAdam makes his novel special by getting inside many heads, especially the chimps’."
Cleveland Plain Dealer

"One might expect the chimp point of view to be distracting, but it speaks to McAdam's talents that they become the most compelling parts of A Beautiful Truth... It's a dark lesson in family, parenting, and community — the way we impose our ideals on others seems to be the beautiful and horrible truth of human nature." 

"Colin McAdam's book may be a novel, but it's still based on intense research. On a surface level, it tells the stories you've heard about before--- the childless couple who decides to adopt a baby chimpanzee, the devoted scientist who communicates with chimps in labs, the process of studying pharmaceuticals on primates. But what makes A Beautiful Truth unique is its sincerity, its honesty, and its heart."  
Greta Johnsen, WCQS Asheville

The portrayal of chimpanzees as individuals with memories isn’t just a fictional device; the commonality of human and chimpanzee conceived here is achieved not by eliminating the traits that divide them but by illuminating the differences that unite them.... With concise language, this heartbreaking tale of loneliness and remembrance reminds us that understanding is a process of growth and experience."
Library Journal, Starred Review

"[A Beautiful Truth] is grounded in solid research on chimp behavior that, along with McAdam’s distinctive poetic prose, informs readers while enriching a deeply moving story." 

"A Beautiful Truth is extraordinary, rather beautiful, and experimental." 
—Herald Scotland

“[A] sure-handed and mature work, expertly weaving together shifts in voice and point of view and making use of a poetic language full of direct, sensual metaphors....There are no platitudes about the power of love and our need to feel for one another, but rather an understanding of how sad and damaging a business love frequently is.”
The Toronto Star

“McAdam has a poetic, impressionistic style, and a sense of humour, and the resulting fantasy is convincing and strangely melancholy.”
—Toronto Globe and Mail

"McAdam does a surprisingly thorough job of dispelling the idea that Looee and the other primates in the novel are just lumbering, dumb animals... Heart-wrenching. " 

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.14(h) x 1.38(d)

Read an Excerpt

Kathleen on Wednesday

“Jerry McGuinty was my husband for fifteen years.”
        “Oh, yeah?”
       “But Jerry McGuinty’s rich.”
       “I’m rich. From a phone call, I’ll be.”
       “But you weren’t really married to Jerry McGuinty.”
       “Watch where you’re cuttin.”
       “How come you’re not rich?”
       “I am rich. Where’s Lisa anyway? It takes a phone call, like I’m, like I’m one of them people, you know, calling. Cut my hair. Where’s Lisa?!”
       “I told ya. She’s sick.”
       “What do ya mean, sick?”
       “The clap.”
       “Ohhh. Lisa?”
       “Who are you?”
       “Joanie. I told you. See, it’s here. Look in the mirror there. Joanie.”
       “So your last name’s McGuinty?”
       “It is.”
       “How come it’s Herlihy?”
       “It’s McGuinty.”
       “Says in the book, Herlihy. Mrs. Herlihy, ten o’clock, cut and set.”
       “Don’t you set my hair. I won’t pay if you set me.”
       “All right, Mrs. Herlihy.”
       “Herlihy, eh? Haven’t heard that in a while.”
       “But ya gave that as your name.”
       “Herlihy’s a pretty name, too.”
       “Herlihy is a pretty name.”
       “A Herlihy doesn’t get the clap. Not a Kathleen Herlihy.”
       “No, ma’am, not a Joanie neither.”
       “McGuinty’s a name.”
       “McGuinty’s a name all right.”
       “My name for fifteen years or so. Smoke?”
       “No thank you.”
       “Give ya some cheekbones.”
       “No thank you, ma’am. I got cheekbones.”
       “I got cheekbones as much as you was married to Jerry McGuinty.”
       “Where’s Lisa fer shit’s sakes? You tell me where Lisa is.”
       “I told you. Lisa’s dead.”
       “She died last week.”
       “Yep. Just after she married Jerry McGuinty.”
       “Lisa’s sick.”
       “You tell her to get better.”
       “You tell me what it was like being married to Jerry McGuinty.”
       “You cut my hair.”
       “I’m cuttin your hair.”
       “Arse. Jerry McGuinty was the biggest . . . You mind your own biggest.”
       “All I know is, I wouldn’t be sittin in that chair if I was married to Jerry McGuinty. I wouldn’t be gettin my hair cut by me, that’s what I know, if I was married to Jerry friggin McGuinty.”
       “I could afford! I could pay for more than this. Who are you?”
       “I’m Joanie.”
       “You’re not Joanie. I was married to Joanie.”
       “Joanie McGuinty?”
       “Jerry. Jerry McGuinty was my husband for twenty years.”

And I gotta buy cheese.
       I gotta buy cheese.
       “Aisle three.”
       I can count. I can count. Comb your freakin hair, you ugly freakin freak, is all I want, is all I want is cheese. Three cheese.
       “Where’s aisle three?”
       “Aisle three fer shit’s sakes.” What do ya want with cheese? “What do ya want with cheese?”
       “I’m so fuckin thirsty.”
       “Do you need help?”
       “I want some fuckin cheese.”
       “Aisle three, ma’am. That way, ma’am.”
       “That way, ma’am.”
       He was sweet, that boy. That way, ma’am, that way. Cheese? Over there, over there by that way, ma’am, ya grubby little freak.
       “Which way?”
       “Where’d he go?”
       “Who, ma’am?”
       “The grocery boy. He’ll bring me a stick of cheese.” That’s it, that’s right. Run away.

       “Ya can’t drink here, ma’am. This is a hairdresser’s.”
       “I’ll just have a drink.”
       “Ya can’t, Mrs. Herlihy. This is a salon. Put that away now.”
       “I’ll just put it down here.”
       “Put the flask back in your pocket, ma’am. I’m not kidding ma’am.”
       “I’ll just put it down here.”
       “I saw your cheekbones.”
       “You see anyone else drinking?”
       “There’s no one in here.”
       “There’s no one in here, and you’re trying to trick me.”
       “I’m not tricking you, Jerry.”
       “It’s Kathleen.”
       “Your name’s Kathleen. Put the flask away, Kathleen.”
       “No one else is drinkin cause you’re trickin everyone.”
       “Just put the flask away. There. In your pocket. You want me to finish your hair, don’t ya?”
       “Mrs. Herlihy, ten o’clock, cut and set.”
       “I won’t have a set today thanks.”
       “So you say.”
       “So says the Lord.”
       “Put the flask away now, Kathleen.”
       “I’ll just have a smoke to help your cheekbones along.”
       “Thank you, ma’am.”
       “You confuse the shit out of me, Lisa.”
       “Do I? I’m Joanie. Would you like a drink, ma’am?”
       “You’re feckin right I would.”
       “Cause this is a saloon.”
       “Put that away, ma’am. Put your head back there. Have a rest. Have a rest while I set your hair.”

“Get your feckin hands off me, is all I’m sayin.”
       “And all I’m saying is you should do your shopping elsewhere.”
       “I am security, ma’am.”
       “Come on outside, ma’am. Finish your shopping outside.”
       “Get your hands off me, and I won’t kill you.”
       “You won’t kill me?”
       “Get your hands off me.”
       “Please keep your voice down.”
       “I want some flippin cheese!”
       “You’ll get some outside.”
       “Where the fuck is aisle three?”

“Mrs. Herlihy? Mrs. Herlihy? Wake up, Mrs. Herlihy. Wake up now, Kathleen. Wake up, ya friggin drunk. Mrs. Herlihy?”
       “You fell asleep.”
       “I fell asleep.”
       “I’ve done your hair, Mrs. Herlihy.”
       “Just on top of your head, ma’am.”
       “That’s very kind.”
       “Are you all right?”

Kathleen on Thursday

“It’s Herlihy.”
       “Good morning, Mrs. Herlihy. Could you hold for one moment?”
       “Hold please.”
       Hold hold hold hold old hold old old.
       “Mrs. Herlihy?”
       “What can we do for you today? The usual?”

“Good morning, Mrs. Herlihy.”
       “Robert, is it? Come in come in.”
       “Just on the counter, ma’am?”
       “I’ll just put it on the counter. I have bad news, Mrs. Herlihy.”
       “Give us a drink.”
       “It’s about the drink, ma’am.”
       “What is it?” Itchy, itchy bastard.
       “Our supplier had no Dewar’s. It’s Bell’s today, I’m afraid.”
       “I thought you hated Bell’s.”
       “Not just now. Hurry.”
       “I was worried.”
       “No ya weren’t.”
       “I suppose you want some.”
       “Thank you, Mrs. Herlihy. Just a quick one. I’ve got four more deliveries this morning.”
       “Dewar’s or Bell’s?”
       “You don’t have Dewar’s today, ma’am. I’ll have Bell’s.”
       “You’ll have Bell’s. I’ll have Bell’s. I’ll have more Bell ’s than you cause you’re driving.”
       “That’s only fair.”
       “Where’d ya put it?”
       “Just on the counter, ma’am.”
       “I’ll just . . . I can pour the feckin thing . . . Here we go.”
       “Thank you very much.”
       “Give that back for a second, Robert, is it.”
       “I’ll just have a little sip of yours.”
       “I wish you wouldn’t do that, ma’am.”
       “More tomorrow. I’ll give yiz.”
       “Can’t I just have a bit?”
       Fucker. “Here. One finger. One and a half fingers.”
       “Pass that back for a minute. I’ll just drink half a finger. There. You’re driving.”
       “Sit, Robert, is it.”
       “Thank you very much. Thank you. I like this couch.”
       “Flippin right. I remember.”
       “I’ll bet. How are you today, anyways, Mrs. Herlihy?”
       “I want you to leave, Robert.”
       “Sure. I’ll just knock that back.”

Just knock it back goodbye son. Off then, ya freakin sponge? I’ll just slip over here and ring the Bell’s and call ya back for more. No? Tomorrow then. Come on back tomorrow.
       Good morning and goodbye to you Robert, ugly face, freakin mole, strawberry pus on chin.
       Smell of old teeth. So old in my mouth, and look at yourself. Look at above the couch, dirty freakin mirror, lookin at yourself. Get yourself up for another, and for anyone else? Blinds down behind the eyes. Older than you look. Nothing like you look. Get yourself another. Goddamn couch cost a fortune, might as well enjoy life.
       Get a man to lay a carpet just as soon as I finish this here, this drink here cost a fortune. Three fingers at noon, get me through the lunchtime quiet. Half a glass, fat fingers today thank God. There’s a toast to all my friends, I wanna thank you all for comin. Get a man to lay me down, three fingers behind the truck.
       Feet! God damn the knees. Cover your knees ya freakin hag and lie down there on the couch. There ya go. There ya go. Peace and freakin quiet. I’ll just have a quick cigarette, if that’s all right with you, Robert.

“It’s Herlihy.”
       “Hello, Mrs. Herlihy. What can we do for you?”
       “Don’t put me on hold.”
       “No need, ma’am.”
       “No need?”
       “No, ma’am.”
       “I didn’t . . . I need my cigarettes. Robert didn’t deliver my goddamn cigarettes.”


What I should say is my name is Jerry and I built this house. Four-square, plaster walls, buttressed from toe to tip with an iron goddamn will, my friend, standing proud proud proud. I hammered it into the ground and I pushed it up to the sky, and with the grace of God and the sweat of men I will build a thousand more.
       All these houses you see around you I built, and neither you nor the grown-up child of your grandchild’s grandchild is going to see them crumble.
       I build, my friend, and up yours if you think me common. I challenge you to build something, and I defy the fist of time to touch what I have done. I challenge you to build a matchstick outhouse in the time it takes me to tell an endless tale. See if you have the will; then wipe that smirk off your flabby pink chops and listen.
       It is endless. And I am worn.
My name is Jerry and my son’s name is Jerry, and that’s because my imagination was always saved for my work. And Jerry, my son my son, is the life hope love and death of me.
       Please tell me if you see him.
       A plague of years ago I put a cigar between my teeth and reckoned myself the greatest man on earth. For there in her hands, careful of the ashes Jer, was the pinkest thing I ever made. Flesh and wrinkles and a boneless chicken in the palm of my hand, screaming in a purple dribbling rage, my boy. My chest, my boy, as swollen as the proud blue sea.
       But where do I begin?
       He had a grip as sharp as needle-nosed pliers. And he grew up smart.

Meet the Author

Colin McAdam's novel Some Great Thing won the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award and was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award, the Rogers Writers' Trust Award, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in the UK. His second novel, Fall, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and awarded the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize. He has written for Harper's and lives in Toronto.

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Some Great Thing 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago