Emily Bitto’s first novel since her 2015 Stella Prize-winning debut, The Strays, is the coming-of-age story of 22-year-old Will. It is 2011 and, reeling from a bad break-up, Will flees Melbourne for the United States in search of “experience” and “the grand American ideal of self-determination”.
Written in elaborate prose and told in an arch, satirical tone – the nods in the novel are to Bellow, Kerouac, and DeLillo – Wild Abandon follows “our brave adventurer” as he arrives in New York to stay with old friend Paul. Falling in with Paul’s crowd of hospitality workers and artists, and trying to distract himself from a broken heart, Will decides he’ll greet everything with a resounding “yes”. This results in a week of coke-fuelled partying that culminates in a trespass that forces him once again to flee.
Will’s week in New York probably takes up too much space in the book. The grandiose style begins to feel unrelenting in this section and even ill-fitted to the prosaic nature of events. Here, for example, is Will as he survives the subway, “the interval of descent into rank warm determined nonintimacy endured”, and decides to visit Times Square: “Perhaps … he might put aside his scant sophistication and deep-set fear of gaucherie to plunge once and briefly into the quintessence of sightseeing and emerge unmarked before midnight.”
If the grandiloquence is intended to skewer the undergraduate posturing of an insecure Kerouacian then it certainly succeeds, but there is a lot of it. And although there are some indelible images and in places this style is effective, especially in the drug scenes, Will’s convoluted digressions on his journey, his past and late-capitalist America weigh heavily on the narrative.
After New York, Will hits the road and ends up in Ohio, where he finds work helping troubled Vietnam veteran Wayne at his Wild Kingdom – a Tiger King-esque private zoo filled with big cats and other wild animals.
Will enjoys working with the animals and in Wayne he finds a complex but sympathetic figure who may share some of his flaws. The true extent of both Will’s and Wayne’s delusion is a slow reveal and these parallel then entwined stories are deftly handled. In this more compelling second half of the novel, Wild Abandon becomes a skilfully drawn drama. It takes a tragic true story and creates from it an empathetic exploration of masculinity and self-deception.
Allen & Unwin, 448pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 30, 2021 as "Wild Abandon, Emily Bitto".
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