Wild Abandon by Emily Bitto – a thrilling, irreverent take on the great American road trip

Like the Great Gatsby - but less romantic and more woke – Wild Abandon follows a lonely outsider finding his place in a late-capitalism world

Emily Bitto’s Wild Abandon is a sprawling novel, easy to read, with characters that are generously written and full of life. It is easy to get lost with Will, as he flees the shame of his small-town upbringing and the heartbreak of first love, leaving Australia in search of meaning and release. But from the hedonistic indulgences of New York City to the primal wilds of Littleproud, Ohio, all Will finds beneath the fantasy of the great American road trip are shattered dreams.

The Strays, Bitto’s Stella prize-winning first novel, was a tense and tightly crafted reflection on art, love, family and obsession. Wild Abandon is much looser, and with the additional scope comes a sense of greater ambition. Bitto turns her attention to larger, more disparate themes of war, family, capitalism and freedom, although the novel again follows the journey of a solitary outsider and his desperate desire to fit in.

The grandness of the physical setting – with both urban and rural written in lush, highly saturated detail – is in tension with the way each of the characters experience it – the way that our dream visions of home and place can blind us to the realities of them. Like The Strays, which draws on the lives of John and Sunday Reed and the Heide artists circle, Wild Abandon takes some inspiration from a true story, in this case Terry Thompson, whose own menagerie of exotic animals was subject of the Zanesville animal massacre in 2011.

There’s an air of The Great Gatsby to the story, although more woke and slightly less romantic. Bitto’s interest in the bohemian lives of artists is evident in the New York preamble, where Will embarks on a reckless bender of coke and booze, in part to forget the pain of failed romance, and in part to shake the cringe of who he had been while growing up. She captures the untethered sense of despair that lies beneath the exotic, the wild, and the opulent, the grief underlying a crumbling capitalism. The more Will dives into the endless party of New York City, the more he sees beneath the facade of wealth and power to the fear and loneliness it conceals.

The world of art and culture that he’s invited into by Paul, his childhood tormenter turned friend, is full of people desperate in their need to connect, and to prove themselves worthy of the illusion. Even the relationship between Will and Wayne, the Vietnam war veteran whose exotic animal farm Will finds work on in Littleproud, is reminiscent of the relationship between Gatsby and Nick Carraway, with the older manipulating the younger’s youthful ideals and naivety to repair some internal rift inside himself.

Like all novels that explore themes of animal liberation and captivity, and the relationship between humans and the creatures they keep, Wild Abandon deals at times in extreme emotional currency. Will’s relationship with Nala, the lion cub who he describes as “his new sweetheart” is particularly endearing, although it is shadowed by the knowledge that these are still “minor characters” in Will’s journey.

In Wild Abandon, Bitto perfectly captures the thrilling, terrifying, urgent sense of being estranged and adrift in those formative early 20s. Will has severed ties with love, family, home and even himself. His desperate need to be seen as something other than the way he sees himself is palpable and intensely relatable. His guilelessness marks something that Marcus, a New York gallery owner, observes early on:

“His face, this boy’s, was wide open, beautiful in the rarest possible way, with no awareness of its own beauty. He could not recall the last time he had met someone beautiful who did not know it. His skin was smooth, as if he had not started to grow a beard, although he must be at least twenty-one, and there was a flush on his cheeks that evoked an erotics of innocent exertion.”

Bitto demonstrates Will’s capacity for growth by punctuating Will’s deep introspection and hyper-fixation on himself with these outsider perspectives.

While Wild Abandon has plenty of thematic connections with Bitto’s first novel, it is a shift, not only in location but in the freedom that Bitto brings to Will’s journey. Here she marks moments of intensity with recklessness, humour, or excess. This is a work that speaks deliberately, and at times even references, the American “greats” – the great American novel, the great American dream, the great American road trip. Bitto brings a tongue-in-cheek irreverence to these tropes to explore the ways that we are made captive and then discarded by late-stage capitalism, and the gnawing pandemic of loneliness and search for meaning that plagues so many. Wild Abandon has a thrilling energy to it that is both playful and profound.

  • Wild Abandon by Emily Bitto is out now through Allen & Unwin

Contributor

Bec Kavanagh

The GuardianTramp

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