Whamming

Ian Sansom

  • Some Great Thing by Colin McAdam
    Cape, 358 pp, £12.99, March 2004, ISBN 0 224 06455 X

Novelists are a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings, obviously. It’s a necessary part of the job, that languid repose; that successful weakening of the usual human determination to do something useful and purposeful rather than just sit around all day trying to think up amusing names for people and places that don’t exist. Trollope, renowned for his determined working habits, and often held up as an exemplar with his little charts and his writing slope and his 250 words per page, used to put in a couple of hours a day, which is less time than my grandfather used to put in on his vegetable patch. But Trollope also worked at the Post Office, people say: well, so did my grandad. Writing is a business full of boasters, shirkers, bullshitters, jerrybuilders and out-and-out cowboys. You hear a lot of nonsense about craft and craftsmanship; but the truth is that in order to publish anything you have to be prepared to bodge and skimp: you have to believe that this, after all, will do. If you don’t, you’re Harold Brodkey. If you still believe that writers work hard, go and live with one for a week, and the next time they’re whining about their sad and difficult lives pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge while having another coffee break and trying to decide what colour to repaint their study or which notebook size really suits, dash the cup from their lips and offer to swap their life of ease for your own 12-hour days at the chalk-face/coal-face/screen-face under cheap fluorescent lighting, working with shifty, scheming and very probably psychopathic colleagues, and cry out to them: ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest’ (Ecclesiastes 9.10), or something similar. That might get their attention, although it probably won’t: most writers are so wrapped up in their own diddlings and dawdlings that it’d take a smack in the face with a piece of unplaned two-by-four to get them to sit up and take notice of the world outside.

English literature is full of lazy-boneses, with everyone aspiring to a state of Woosterdom or Woolfness; at least in America people in novels still seem to work. This may have something to do with undergraduates reading Emerson and Thoreau, or it may have something to do with everyone needing health insurance. People who read novels in Britain and Ireland generally do so on holiday from work, or on the way to work, or in bed at night, exhausted after work, or at the weekend, dreading the return to work on Monday morning; but if you were to take the protagonists of most novels published in these isles, you’d find that the toad work had been well and truly forked off their lives. With the notable exceptions of Magnus Mills and James Kelman, most British writers don’t make a habit of writing about what’s at the centre of most people’s lives. And I don’t mean sex: that’s peripheral, like God.

The last great English novel about work, about its anxieties, distortions and deformations, was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressel, which until the mid-1980s every trade unionist, Labour Party member and left-leaning student in Britain could safely be said to have read, or at least heard of. Then in 1984 everyone put it down and picked up Money. For the benefit of anyone too young to remember, and for those who’ve forgotten, Tressel’s novel begins: ‘The air was full of the sounds of hammering and sawing, the ringing of trowels, the rattle of pails, the splashing of water brushes, and the scraping of the stripping knives used by those who were removing old wallpaper.’ This is not a sound you often get to hear these days between hard covers. What you usually get to hear is semi-professional melancholians beating on tiny little tin drums, squelching, self-pitying, huffing, puffing and generally wallowing in their own bubble-bath solemnity: the sound of the Fabian Society drinking whisky sours in a hot-tub at a nudist colony.

Colin McAdam isn’t from round here: he’s Canadian and lives in Australia. Some Great Thing resounds with the sound of working men: Jerry McGuinty, Edgar Davies, Tony Espolito, Johnny Cooper, Mario Calzone are ‘the usual muddy mix’, men who can stand ‘for 19 hours in the rain’, building houses and talking to each other the way men do – ‘I can’t cunt find fuckin nails ass, shit, you seen them, hoor?’ Not since Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has a book title made such bold claims for itself. And on this occasion it’s justified.

Some Great Thing is Jerry McGuinty’s story. There’s an apocalyptic grandeur about Jerry; like the Good Lord Himself, Jerry doesn’t just think, he creates:

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.

Some Great Thing is not only a book about work, it’s also a book about salvation and seeking rescue; it’s a book about life’s work. The great thing about Jerry, though, is that he’s not a novelist manqué or an insufferable type sitting in a library. He’s more like an Irvine Welsh character gone legit. He’s a plasterer, but not just any old plasterer. Jerry’s a plasterer from a long line of plasterers, one of the 50,000 members of the Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association of the United States and Canada, and he’s the best. ‘My walls will change your life,’ he boasts, and they certainly change his. He’s so good, and so determined and ambitious, so driven, that he starts buying up little bits of land himself. He gets his own crew together, and they start throwing up houses: it’s Ottawa in the 1970s and you can see the city expanding, found after found, brick by brick, Jerry and his crew giving the old green belt a good thrashing:

I don’t know whether I need to say anything about the green belt other than its name: green belt. A green belt. Green, like leprechauns and fairies, weird, imaginary, squeaky little freaks that make everyone sort of uncomfortable. Just because green is the colour of leaves and grass doesn’t mean it’s not a fuckin weird colour. There’s nothing natural about it. A green belt. I think we understand each other.

Jerry marries wild Kathleen, who likes to drink, and he starts battling with her and with the ‘Federal God Fuck Government’ and their planning laws and restrictions. He gets caught up in ‘Planners’ Meetings, Stakeholders’ Meetings, Developers’ Meetings, Union Meetings, Community Meetings, Jesus Meetings, Not Another Meetings, my friend, Meeting Meetings, surrounding me like a religion’. He’s bribing people left, right and centre, like he’s running a racket in an Elmore Leonard novel. He’s also designing and building his own house, to his own exacting specifications, like he’s Wittgenstein: ‘a huge, white beauty of a self-cleaning wonder with marble floors, a piece of the sky under every ceiling, and walls of creamy steel’. Jerry and Kathleen have a son, also called Jerry, who learns everything he needs to know about life from talking to the men on the sites: ‘Adults don’t talk to kids without trying to teach them something, so even though my crew were morons they taught him things. He learned about accents and fear, as he would at school.’ And then it all starts to fall apart, with vast echoes – as everything comes down around Jerry’s big head and broad shoulders – of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Carol Shields’s Unless: adults splitting; children cracking; the underpinnings failing. But Jerry soldiers on. ‘Fuck me, the world can be a wild shaken-up jumble of soul-tickling mysteries, so many little games for so many little people, and I want to play, yes, I want to play sometimes and make more mysteries.’

So, the plot’s solid, and the dialogue’s like forge-water – ‘McGuinty, ya lick-whore cunt drip wall fuck level or I’ll eat your ass!’ – but, as with any novel, you have to make allowances for the occasional cooling off, and some slight subsidence. As well as Jerry’s magnificent rise and fall, McAdam tells the story of Simon Struthers, Jerry’s white-collar counterpart and nemesis: ‘He had an MP father and a Type A mother and his childhood was long, golden and pestilent.’ Simon is a civil servant in the division of Design and Land Use. His office ‘smells of budget’ and ‘its paint is like spit on paper.’ Although he’s just as desperately confused and full of vigour as Jerry, and just as finely portrayed, it does sometimes seem as if he’s getting in the way of the main man, like Aaron muscling in on Moses. Sometimes, when Simon’s around, wooing the improbably named Kwyet, it can be a struggle to get from one end of McAdam’s poetic-leaning sentences to another, but Some Great Thing is scattered with enough great little things to keep everyone occupied:

A building site shows you the work that goes into living. And a finished building is a life – the end of a life when you can do nothing with what you’ve built but die in it.

No development of land in the history of concrete-laying man has ever been a pure success unless it was bought from someone desperate or confused. If you see land for sale or land you want, don’t measure it or stare at it or plan how much you would pay. Go to the nearest bar or church, find out from the locals what sort of person owns the land, and if he’s a bankrupt, drunk or idiot, buy it.

Sometimes truth has a taste like smoke or metal. I hate it.

And for a novel which is largely about diffusion, chaos, mass, bulk and human desires run amok, McAdam is profoundly neat, squeezing entire apprenticeships into sentences. ‘The foreman took me aside at the end of the day and stood me next to the half wall I’d plastered (still wet), and he pushed me slowly into it face-first without saying a word. I stepped back and saw an impression of a scared white Jerry McGuinty.’

McAdam rightly uses a language that displays effort and strain, as when Jerry McGuinty invites the reader for a drive, and then suddenly brakes: ‘A little faster? Faster? No one behind, eh? Wham! Ha! Sorry. I should have warned you. Take it easy. That’s the point, you see. No warning.’ There’s quite a lot of whamming in the book. There’s also a lot of counting. Numbers, and their accumulation, bring their own excitement: ‘Four houses sold!! Five houses sold! The sixth was bought by a doctor!’ And after the logic of climax, the long countdown to despair: ‘Let me put it this way: over the last year in our first house I had spent exactly 31 minutes inside Kathleen. Never mind how many separate occasions it took to reach that total, and as for how I knew the total precisely: we had a new digital clock with big numbers.’

Most novelists are really only interested in consumption: McAdam is interested in production. Most novelists are keen to achieve silky-smoothness: McAdam is prepared to accept abruptions. If the book can be said to recall and resemble The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, it might also be true to say that it recalls and resembles A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, not only in its peculiarly supple prose and in its record and depiction of passionate thinking, but also in achieving, or at least attempting, a language in which fully to express our higher concepts of experience and existence amid and within the tiresome demands of the everyday. But then all such comparisons are wobbly and untenable, like a shameful house with plasterboard walls, put up simply to fill space and make money. You couldn’t pay McAdam any greater tribute than simply to say that that he’s worked hard at a job worth doing.