Some Great Thing

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Told alternately in a clipped first person and a poetic, experimental third person, Some Great Thing tells the story of builder Jerry McGuinty and the man who serves as his foil and dark reflection, government bureaucrat Simon Struthers. Set in Ottawa beginning in the 1970’s and spanning many years, the novel shows how each man, bound to intersect with the other’s life, seals his own fate. On the surface, each seems radically different from the other. Jerry comes from a working class background and learns his trade on the job. Simon, on the other hand, is a child of privilege, the recipient of an excellent education, and eventually the winner of a lofty government job. Each seems dedicated to his ambitions just as each seem not to be able to control his needs and desires. Jerry is determined to build lasting houses and, eventually, a golf course, and is blindly in love with his alcoholic wife, Katherine. Simon, on the other hand, is constantly manipulating his colleagues to climb the bureaucratic ladder, and sleeping with every woman he can, until he develops an unhealthy fixation on one lover’s daughter. Despite the differences in their goals and needs, however, each man most wants to achieve stability, and happiness, and some form of inner peace, as made clear by the name of the girl Simon is obsessed with: Kwyet, a homonym for quiet.

Jerry McGuinty starts his life as a plasterer for other men’s construction sites. While still a young man, he realizes that to get ahead, he needs to build houses rather than just work for men building houses, and before long he develops a plan, attains financing, gathers a crew, and begins making his dreams come true. Jerry is dedicated to actually building quality houses and has only disdain for the quickly and poorly built houses of so many tract developments. However, he is incapable of bringing the same intensity of focus to his family life. His inability to understand his alcoholic wife’s illness and his quiet son’s sufferings will, in the end, cost him, just as Simon Struthers’s blind desires will cost him.