Comedy writer James Colley’s debut novel, The Next Big Thing, opens with a clipping from the former Fairfax’s Good Weekend supplement, published in 1985. The first of a series of such missives punctuating each chapter, it identifies Coffs Harbour’s Big Banana as the first in a rash of “elephantiasis” that has spread across the country since 1964. Another entry from The Canberra Times in 1991 goes low, noting that “The testicles of Goulburn’s now legendary Big Merino hang down so far that they penetrate the roof of the souvenir shop.”
These cuttings set the tone of an amiably ocker story in the vein of that quintessentially Australian movie The Castle, playfully elbowing working-class/small-town Australia in the ribs while ruffling its hair affectionately. Set in the fictional town of Norman, it sets things rolling with a runaway garden trolley absent-mindedly abandoned by our humble protagonist – also called Norman – that places his old dog, Pup, in mortal danger.
Norman has always lived in Norman, where the only mobile reception is atop an outcrop affectionately dubbed Vodafone Hill, on which the Lucky Duck pizza shop owner leaves boxes for folks to toboggan down after ordering. Leading a quiet life, Norman marks the anniversary of his trucker dad’s passing with an annual pilgrimage to the local pub, the Stumbling Elephant Hotel, and also nurses an enduring crush on his best mate, Ella. But she, like most young locals, has her heart set on skipping town and heading to uni.
This exodus, and the contributing factors of a small town in which the local industry has dried up like its river, offers a more nebulous threat than the encroaching developers of the Rob Sitch film. It’s a slow death, as signalled by Radio National presenters regularly announcing the official cessation of similar locales nearby. But Norman has a big idea to save his namesake: building a tourist-trap Big Thing.
But what? You’ll have to wait for the closing pages to find out, in an easy airport read that seems destined for a low-budget screen adaptation. Unfolding rather predictably in a meandering fashion, it only very occasionally shows flashes of the sharpness Colley has demonstrated in the writing room for satirical news shows The Weekly with Charlie Pickering and Tonightly with Tom Ballard. Like Ella and the city, I couldn’t help but yearn for the dangling promise of a non-fiction book/documentary that explores the real Big Things instead.
Pantera Press, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "The Next Big Thing".
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