Emily Bitto won the Stella Prize in 2015 for her first novel The Strays. Her second, Wild Abandon, was worth the wait. Wild Abandon is a kind of coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of two very different sides of America (the book itself is divided into two sections, each titled ‘America’), both seen slightly from the outside.
When the book opens, it is 2011. Will has fled to New York from Melbourne, trying to outrun a failed relationship. He has been offered a place to stay with his older brother’s best friend, Paul, who has been in New York for seven years and works as a chef. Paul lived with Will and his family when he was younger and the two did not have the best relationship, but all is forgotten and forgiven when young Australian men are helping each other out overseas. Soon, through Paul and his artist girlfriend Justine, Will is deep in the hedonistic New York art scene. Will spends this time constantly drunk or high (or both) but always feeling detached from the privilege surrounding him. In the background, the Occupy movement is mentioned, but the view of those Will is hanging out with is, ‘Forget politics – let’s get high.’
Bitto brings Will, the places he visits, and all of the people he encounters, to vivid life. Not only the skyline of New York, ‘somehow fake seeming in its closeness, a cheesy pull-down backdrop in a tourist photo booth’, but the street level:
The dark was sleek and warm and populous and he strolled through Tompkins Square Park where people were walking their dogs and jogging. He passed a group of young black guys with a portable speaker playing Kendrick Lamar and he drifted through chained pools of scent – dog pee and sullage and sweet weed smoke…
After a particularly egregious, drug-fuelled mistake, Will rents a car and drives west, finding himself in the small Ohio town of Littleproud, where an old school friend is living with her American husband, JT. Despite feeling trapped in a town similar to the one he grew up in, Will is desperate for cash and agrees to work for JT’s friend Wayne Gage, a Vietnam veteran who collects exotic animals – including lions, tigers, bears, wolves and monkeys.
… Will stood before living predators of enormous size and physical power, creatures that once again set off some deep-dwelling response of recognition and fear and ambivalent euphoria, some reawakened blink of the sleeping senses in an animal who has long forgotten what it means to be prey…
Will is employed to help Wayne feed his many animals, but over time finds himself drawn to Wayne and his philosophy. But Wayne is in trouble and Will slowly starts to realise that the whole enterprise might be closer to the edge than Wayne is making out.
This is a coming-of-age story for Will, and while he starts by just running away, he recognises that he is going on this journey as a way of discovering and possibly changing himself:
What in truth was he doing – seeking – on this knee-jerk caper? What was he? Brave explorer of the new cultural motherland? Lame desperate escapee and shirker of the debts of his various bankruptcies: material, spiritual, amorous? Or a mere touristic dandy, mass-produced surveyor of the mass-produced sites laid out for his predictable ocular and fiscal consumption, nourishing as orange soda and significant as bottle tops?
And while he does not necessarily become a better person, by the end of the novel Will is certainly a different one, having been able to put his experiences in both New York and Littleproud in some sort of perspective.
While most of the tale is told from Will’s point of view, the characters that he encounters are all fascinating in themselves, even when filtered through Will’s slightly jaundiced eyes. Bitto will often digress to reveal what others think of him. In doing so she digs deeper into the relationship between what is often seen as a worldly and cynical America and a more wide-eyed and naïve Australia.
What Marcus saw when he looked at this boy … was something that had become in his American ascendency almost impossible to find … and that he experienced as a relief, a glass of plain cold water after too much fine wine, and was this: a true naif.
Valerie watched his face across the candle-flicker and the dirty plates and she thought, this kind of life is utterly unknown to him; he is a sweet boy from a good law-abiding family and their purlieus of lawlessness and the kinds of men drawn to guns and fast machines and racing down the periphery of suicidal speed are as foreign to him as danger …
Bitto’s writing is luminous, with long, sinuous sentences that manage to convey layers of meaning. But she never loses sight of Will’s journey and the impending and harrowingly described tragedy (based on a true story) that he finds himself both in the middle of and unable to affect.
The New York section feels almost like a prologue to the ‘real’ story but serves as a thematic counterpoint to the action in Littleproud. As things fall apart for him, Will comes to realise how false his time in New York was:
The emblems of his days there were almost comic in their clichéd end-times symbolism: the greed and lust and avarice and the coveting of another man’s wife; the drugs and sex and food culture and the art that was not for sale and the bright-lit never-ending night-times and the beauty and the money.
From Will’s perspective, Littleproud is filled with honest, hard-working people hanging out in local bars. But this is a community that is also infected by American exceptionalism, just expressed in a different form, as represented by the caged predators and the appetite for guns.
Wild Abandon confirms Bitto as an Australian writer to watch. Incisively observed, thematically resonant and peopled with interesting, larger-than-life but recognisable characters, this is a novel that gives readers an insight into the unfamiliar and fresh ways of looking at a particular time and place .
This review first appeared on Newtown Review of Books.