Cool hero rides an American storm

Cool hero rides an American storm
Rhonda Dredge

America is the place of ultimate cool – placing high value on the valueless – and of ultimate shame – placing no value on the invaluable.

Emily Bitto, in her second novel Wild Abandon, sends her hero there on a lesson to learn the difference between the two.

Will is 22 and well-educated but finds his own small town roots excruciating.

Bitto sets him up in New York with all of the coke, art, girls and frippery that any cynic would gladly turn into self-referential prose.

Shame, however, is the dark drug of Will’s soul and it gradually reaches biblical proportions in this strange, ambitious tale of American excess.

Will chases up an old school friend who is about to have a baby in Ohio and gets a job at Wayne’s Wild Kingdom, a private zoo specialising in large predators.

His rapid transformation from pretty boy hedonist to shoveller of chicken guts and lion cub carer is the manna upon which this Bildungsroman feeds.

Bitto has quite a bit of fun in the early pages with her delightful affectations, particularly her adjectives which set up the hero’s “thrilling incognito course” through the plenitude of America.

Her aim, as expressed in the acknowledgements, was to make sense of a tragic event that occurred in 2011 to an exotic animal owner in Ohio.

Wisely, this event is only mentioned in the credits for the power of this novel rests in its syntax and sophisticated narration, rather than its plot.

The segue from urban sophisticate to back block yokel has an “on the road” logic that is disrupted by the loyalty of Wayne to his animals.

The heavy-handedness of this devotion demolishes Will’s own, more tentative negotiations with the world which are focalised internally and externally in the narration in subtle shifts.

The reader, forced to endure an apocalyptic law enforcement finale, might wish to have remained a negotiator like Will.

There is something gratuitous about this over-the-top zoo and its connections to a real-life event that fiction might have refined.

Horror and spectacle lord it over attachment in the bizarre world Wayne has created, which is a pity.

The most poignant scenes are those close to Will and his thwarted relationship with a girlfriend back in Melbourne.

Will constantly needs to be rescued, but of course this is his charm.

Bitto has created a sensitive, amusing hero with cultural baggage that could have been more applauded by the rest of the cast.

His reticence in the face of messy emotional indulgence is just fine •

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