Book Review: Wild Abandon by Emily Bitto

About the Book:

In the fall of 2011, a heartbroken young man flees Australia for the USA. Landing in the excessive, uncanny-familiar glamour and plenitude of New York City, Will makes a vow to say yes to everything that comes his way. By fate or random chance, Will’s journey takes him deep into the American heartland where he meets Wayne Gage, a fast-living, troubled Vietnam veteran, would-be spirit guide and collector of exotic animals. These two men in crisis form an unlikely friendship, but Will has no idea just how close to the edge Wayne truly is.

Wild Abandon is a headlong tumble through the falling world of end-days capitalism, a haunting, hyperreal snapshot of our own strange times. We read with increasing horror and denial as we approach the cataclysmic conclusion of Will’s American odyssey, dreading what is galloping towards us, but utterly unable to look away.

This lyrical and devastating new novel from the Stella Prize-winning author of The Strays offers us startling and profound visions of the world and our place in it.

Published by Allen & Unwin

Released 28th September 2021

My Thoughts:

I have a habit of reading the author notes at the end of a book first. More often than not, this will prove spoilerish, with the author referencing something to do with the story that is not disclosed in the blurb. I don’t mind that though, because on several occasions now, reading something in the author note and knowing that ‘this thing’ is still to come, has actually kept me from abandoning a book. That was very much the case here, with Wild Abandon. I really did not get along with this book at the start. In fact, I completely disliked the entire first section that plays out in New York. Will was entirely unimpressive as a character and the constant drug taking and drinking interspersed with intoxicated ramblings of introspection punctuated by random and regretful sexual encounters was slightly repulsive and indeed, a little bit boring. The ‘cocaine set’ that Will got caught up in were just a bunch of self-important tossers, calling themselves artists and personal stylists and getting paid an exorbitant amount to do so whilst demonstrating no measurable talent whatsoever. The truth of these people existing within this microcosm of New York is the truly sad part as their representation of it as a place to be is not doing New York any favours. I’d prefer the sanitised version of New York I get from Friends. If I hadn’t read the author note, I most likely would have abandoned the book before the end of that section and missed out on a quite incredible story.

“He wondered whether Wayne’s act of hospitality was frequent and habitual and indiscriminate or long held in store for just such a figure of young and desperate searching as himself, a fertile anonymous outline on which to project the image of the younger self or son or double still able to receive and act upon the future man’s impassioned impotent and soon-to-be-familiar advice. But hadn’t he vowed, after all, to say yes to everything? To the world? Well, this was what the world was offering: wild animals; the depths and secrets of small-town America; housing and employment with a random, quite likely troubled and possibly even dangerous ageing veteran, creator of his own rogue Midwestern Xanadu and dispenser of philosophy, of what utility to his own vague cause Will was not yet sure.”

It wasn’t until recently that I became aware that American’s can still own exotic animals. I honestly thought (hoped) this was a thing of the past. From the moment that Wayne enters this story, I had a feeling, deep down, that everything I despise about people owning wild animals as pets was going to be realised. It came as no surprise to me that Will and Wayne bonded on some level. Both were incredibly self-absorbed men, both disillusioned about their own grandiosity and unwilling to recognise themselves as masters of their own fate. That Will learned nothing, gained nothing, and achieved nothing on his quest to find himself on an American road trip also came as no surprise. He was utterly paralysed by low self-esteem to the point where it had blinded him and manifested itself into some sort of judgment upon others, as though they were the reason he felt the way he did in any given situation. Wayne’s situation put me in mind of David Koresh (the Waco siege), a man full of his own grand plans, the Messiah of his own kingdom, the anti-government vibe he gave off along with being on the FBI’s radar for his weapons cache – all very much the same. The utter devastation of what played out was horrendous and deeply affecting. The wrongness of it all was so very apparent and I found myself angry at Wayne, angry at those who knew him but didn’t see him for the ticking time bomb he really was, angry at the police for acting in such a cataclysmic and poorly thought out way, and angry at the human collateral damage that comes from war, the people left with PTSD for decades until something finally gives and we all feign shock over it and claim that we never saw it coming because he was ‘such a good guy’.

“For now, he chiefly felt an overwhelming sense of all that he had failed to learn and do on this short aborted quest. At helping Wayne, he had failed. At staying ninety days, he had failed. At forgetting Laura, he had failed. At the gaining of self-knowledge of the kind to make a man of him, he had miserably failed.” 

Wild Abandon is a complex novel that generated complex feelings within me whilst reading. It is written in a flamboyantly literary style that occasionally bordered on being overwritten, but for the most part was also beautifully poetic and deeply meaningful. It is narrated by a third person omniscient narrator that occasionally breaks through the fourth wall and gives an indication to the reader of what lies ahead for our protagonist, not just within the story itself, but also much further down the track beyond the narrative, almost like a crystal ball giving us a glimpse into the future. I’ve always loved this sort of narration and Emily Bitto is definitely an expert at it. Once I’d finished the novel, I could see the entirety of it and the place within Will’s journey that the New York section accomplished. For me, Wild Abandon was about something momentous happening, yet in the end, it being all for nothing. I feel that’s what Emily has achieved for both Will and Wayne. Will’s journey was a failure, Wayne’s Wild Kingdom, likewise, was a failure. In this, Wild Abandon resists the cliched narrative arc where our protagonist(s) journeys through adversity to arrive on the other side triumphant in redemption. Instead, we have two men, one at the end of his adult life, and one at the beginning, but both connected by a propensity for lying and an inability to accept their own fallibility. Wild Abandon was a compulsive read for me. Once Will hit Ohio, I couldn’t put it down. Deeply moving, tragic, and affecting.

“And then at once he was alone, in the wreck of an extravagant and hopeful ruined dream, standing in the doorway of a dead man’s house, somewhere in America.”


Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Wild Abandon by Emily Bitto

  1. Bravo, Theresa! By page 100 I was bored witless by the inane adventures in the first part. I thought it was overwritten and repetitive. Maybe, like you, I should have pressed on, but I gave it 50 pages more than I usually do with a book I don’t like, and I had other things to read.
    IMO, a good editor would have said, ‘Look, you’ll be testing the patience of many readers, cut it back by 50 pages and move on to part two before they give up.’
    It’s a shame, because I really, really liked The Strays.

    Liked by 1 person

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