Wild Abandon
Joe Dunthorne
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Buy *Wild Abandon* by Joe Dunthorne online

Wild Abandon
Joe Dunthorne
Random House
336 pages
January 2012
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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I was initially enthralled by Dunthorne’s wacky, offbeat novel about a group of alternative, left-of-center, new-age characters who eke out a meager existence in a Welsh commune. As his story unfolded in a volatile mix of duplicity and mayhem, though, I found myself resenting these self-obsessed people in an environment that values collective survival over everything else.

Consisting of a market garden, a wind turbine, a geodesic dome, and a sustainable roundhouse built of earth, straw, sand and water, the community is presided over co-founder Don Riley. Ensconced in his singular power trip, Don can’t seem to rise above his failed Oxford interview. Don’s daughter, Kate, wants nothing more than to escape the earthy commune’s confines for a tranquil, “normal” life in suburbia; Don’s wife, Freya, is beginning to question her marriage.

From the outset, Don is rather thin-skinned when it comes to criticism of the community. With his thick castaway’s beard “a badly maintained trophy of unemployability,” only Don’s son, freckle-faced Albert (who likes to take showers with his sister), seems to maintain any semblance of enthusiasm for their lives so far.

The story moves relentlessly toward a crucial choice that will bring Don face to face with Patrick Kinwood, a former greeting card entrepreneur and by far the largest monthly contributor to the commune. Perpetually habituating a green fleece that most often smells of bong water, Patrick is set to clash with Don over Albert’s school lessons, composed of the subversive power of television advertisements and the mysteries of centrifugal force.

Clearly things are not going well for the commune. When Patrick freaks out after smoking too much marijuana, a night of paranoia and drug-fuelled angst lands him in hospital. Only Kate seems interested in maintaining the wave of collective compassion for this hard-to-love older man. This incident corresponds with Kate’s arrival at her boyfriend’s house, where she finds herself sexually attracted to his father. Only by holding a party, a sort of summer Rave House, can Don hope to lure Kate back to the fold. He also hopes this event will build a new reputation for the community and perhaps even reignite his marriage to Freya.

As the Welsh landscape land rises and falls in concentric circles, Don’s desperation to keep the community together grows ever-more powerful, becoming almost demonic. Wrapped in symbiotic dance of power, Don begins to realize that the relationship between his marriage and the community feed off each other even when he discovers that he’s probably fighting a lost cause.

Although Dunthorne’s prose is fluid and accomplished and contains moments of great clarity, I found his characters mostly distant and unappealing. While an unsettling end-of-the-world scenario gives the plot added resonance, especially in this isolated setting, it all ends up as rather contrived and silly in an over-the-top narrative in danger of spinning out of control.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2012

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