Book review: The Next Big Thing by James Colley

(courtesy Pantera Press)

Life can be a LOT much of the time.

And that doesn’t always meaning you have a surfeit of something; often and rather ironically and perversely, it can be the sheer absence of something that can feel like a multitudinous weight upon your shoulder and weigh you down so much that going forward in any kind of meaningful way feels like mission impossible (and not the cool, global espionage-y Ethan Hunt kind of way).

One person, in fact two people who know precisely what this feels like are Norm and Ella, protagonists of The Next Big Thing, and best friends since childhood who are stuck in the small decaying town of Norman in Victoria (Australia) which is ravaged by drought, a lack of any sort of meaningful economic activity and a deadening sense that life has passed it by and isn’t planning another swing around any time soon, let alone at all.

When things look this dire, you have one of two choices – either give up, which is the option taken by pretty much everyone in the moribund time including its sleazy, self-serving mayor, or fight against the odds which is precisely the route that sweetly unconventional and gloriously idiosyncratic Norm (who, yes, is named after the town … or so he thinks) decides to take when he dreams up a plan to erect a big thing in Norman to put it back on the map.

Norm’s eyes lit up. The bleak mood that had engulfed him all morning seemed to slide off his shoulders and onto the ground. They shared a smile. It was a perfect moment that couldn’t even be dampened by the profane curses of Mr Baylis pulling charcoal husks from his oven.

Big things, for those not familiar with this particularly Australian obsession, are giant versions of everything from sheep to pineapples to bananas to prawns, all of them placed proudly somewhere in the town to whom they come to mean a great deal.

Kitsch? Yep. A little retro daggy? Absolutely. But secretly beloved and adored even as they are publicly scorned and ridiculed? Yes, indeed and honestly tourists continue to flock to them so why wouldn’t you want one?

Norm is convinced this is the way to reverse and embellish Norman’s fortunes, and while Ella, with whom Norm is very much in love, is dubious about the idea, she cares about her bestie, who lost his dad at age nine triggering a rallying of the town around him, and so she’s throws herself behind it, even as she makes plans to escape the place and start a course on astronomy at a university in Melbourne.

Theirs is a sweet and selflessly caring bond, and whether it’s observing their Friday night ritual of watching old movies on DVD with pizza or just hanging out Vodafone Hill, which is the only place in town where you can kind of sort of maybe get a mobile (cellphone) signal, they belong together and do everything together. (And no, Ella hasn’t broken it to Norm at the start of The Next Big Thing that their togetherness has an end date and will soon come to a very sad and geographically distant end.)

(courtesy Pantera Press)

But as is the way of daring ideas, especially ones offered in the face of community-wide ennui, Norm’s idea of going BIG doesn’t resonate with all that many people, and in the face of all kinds of charming quirkiness and the amusingly touching machinations of a cast of thoroughly eccentric characters, Norm and Ella decide to go it unofficially alone, their commitment to Norman, well Norm’s anyway, greater than the opposition that halfheartedly stands in their way (or is simply not there thanks to a communal decision to throw in the towel).

For Norm, it’s as much as winning the girl as it is saving the town, while for Ella, she simply wants to be there for her very best friend in the world, but whatever the motivation, it’s a goal to which both subscribe and even if by its completion, the two will be in different places and entirely different worlds, at least they’ll have one last magical summer to call their own.

The Next Big Thing manages with real heartwarming humour and empathetic insightfulness to be a romantic comedy of the most idiosyncratically offbeat kind (which in a world of cookie cutter romance is a real pleasure), a rallying cry to save the home you love and an exercise in exploring the strangeness and lovability of the Australian psyche.

That last element in particular is a joy to see reflected in a novel because if there is one thing Aussies love, it’s an underdog, either being it or supporting one, a national characteristic that speaks to the down-to-earth humanity that percolates right through most people in this nation this reviewer happily calls home.

The last vestiges of fight had left his system. What was the point, anyway? Precisely what would he be saving? Norman without Ella wasn’t Norman. It would be easier to fade away, to let the dirt reclaim the town. He let sleep take him again.

A David and Goliath tale that always supposes there’s no way Goliath will win – the mayor does try to bolster the bad guy’s of this Biblical tale’s chances but you know it’ll go nowhere, especially when everyone, and we mean everyone, including his hoped-for collaborators, are laughing at him – The Next Big Thing is a gem of Australiana, rom-com wonder and charmingly hilarious oddities that makes you believe you can do anything if you try.

It taps into that lovely quality Australians possess that “she’ll be right”, and while many of the townspeople have chucked it aside like last week’s garbage, Norm and Ella have not, and it’s reading about how they, Norm in particular, refuse to give up the fight, no matter the odds stacked against them from a corrupt mayor to a dried up river and a disinterested populace, that really warms the heart and fire up the triumphal aspects of the imagination.

Gloriously over-the-top and silly in the very best of emotional affecting and wonderfully amusing ways, The Next Big Thing has it all – a rom-com that you want to have end HAPPILY, a town that really want to be saved even if it’s not sure that’s what it wants, and a love for all things Australian from our eccentric icons to our willingness to buck the trend no matter the odds, all written with wit, verve and heartwarming vivacity that sears your love of Norman, Ella and everything to do with the town into your heart which you know won’t long forget and which you will treasure almost as much as Norman loves the town he fights to save.

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