Philip Larkin’s bitter poem about the influence of our parents — “They [mess] you up, your mum and dad” — could be the epigraph of Joe Dunthorne’s second novel, “Wild Abandon.” But Dunthorne marinates dysfunction in sweet absurdity to produce a wry comedy, the latest addition to that black-sheep genre known as Quirky Families. You’ve seen these people: They’re staples of indie films such as “Little Miss Sunshine” or novels such as Kevin Wilson’s recent “The Family Fang.” In such stories, psychological abuse or parental neglect that should poison precocious children is somehow ameliorated by affection and irony. On good days, that strikes me as a perfectly realistic view, and Dunthorne is one of its wittiest proponents. His first novel, “Submarine” (2008), was enthusiastically compared to “The Catcher in the Rye” and attracted even more attention when Richard Ayoade’smovie adaptation was released last year.
While “Submarine” stayed locked in the hilarious diary voice of a 15-year-old boy, “Wild Abandon” moves through the eccentrics at a dying commune in South Wales with the tortured Welsh name of Blaen-y-Llyn. As a locale for satire, that’s pretty much shooting freaks in a barrel, but Dunthorne never reduces these characters entirely to farce. He’s more interested in the common comedy of their lives than in their bizarre peculiarities, although they certainly sport those.
Founded two decades ago in the early 1990s, this self-sustaining 50-acre farm is a cookie jar of weirdos who make their own shampoo and drink goat’s milk. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) “The combination of a ruthless selection process and a high likelihood of mental illness among the applicants” has produced a community of about 20 misfits, half of whom are just passing through as “wwoofers” — volunteers for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.”
“Wild Abandon” opens as the commune faces several existential threats, although everybody’s too cool or passive-aggressive to let on that anything’s wrong. Their money comes largely from Patrick, a retired greeting-card executive who lives in a decaying geodesic dome that “must have looked like the future when it was built.” When not pining for another one of the founding members who makes “proto-Gothic recycled jewelry,” Patrick is growing paranoid that the group tolerates his presence only because he’s wealthy. If he weren’t perpetually stoned, he might be able to think this through more clearly.
His pompous friend Don Riley is the group’s nominal leader and one of Dunthorne’s funniest creations. Like any good leftie commander, Don spurns actual work and spends most of his time in a blue kimono polishing inspirational phrases “in the well-attended auditorium of his mind.” He’s often moved to tears by his deeper-than-thou sensitivity.His far-more-grounded wife is growing increasingly frustrated by “the gap between Don as he viewed himself, and the reality.”
The real gems here, though, are Don’s two children, who quickly become the focus of the novel and confirm the evidence in “Submarine” that Dunthorne is a genius at depicting young people. Seventeen-year-old Kate is sharp enough to see this strange place for what it is, and she knows her civilian friends must never see her there. In the outside world her mother seems like a “woodland troll. . . . Her clothes looked sad — frowning, drooping, washed at low temperature.” But Kate’s secret apostasy is mitigated by a surprisingly mature affection for the people who’ve raised her. She’s won permission to attend school in town, where she can learn something besides the hodgepodge of home lessons on cinquecento Italian architecture, centrifugal force and TV advertising, and she’s eagerly planning her departure for college. But that means leaving behind her 11-year-old brother Albert, one of the funniest, most poignant kids I’ve run across in fiction.
Good novels about siblings are surprisingly rare considering how many of us have them and what a subtle, complex relationship they pose. The beauty of Dunthorne’s portrayal here is how well he captures Kate’s fraying sense of responsibility for her brother, an enthusiastic little boy who’s part action hero and part concierge. Achingly guileless, he’s an expert on how much dirt his belly button can hold, what lasers can kill dinosaurs and how to answer the phone properly: “You have reached the forefront of human development,” he calmly announces to anyone who calls.
His winning goofiness, though, is complicated by loneliness, an increasing awareness that, as he tells his sister, “I don’t have anything in common with people my own age.” Realizing that Kate is about to leave him and that his parents’ marriage is breaking up, Alfred grows obsessed with the imminent end of the world. That worrisome turn of mind drives the story close to tragedy, but Dunthorne keeps tight control and steers this endearing novel away from pathos or sentimentality right to the very last line.
With its frizzy comedy about real people emerging mournfully from an unreal place, “Wild Abandon” had me pestering my wife with favorite lines till she promised to read it. Dunthorne is best with those complications of family affection, that mingling of love and annoyance that can make you laugh and choke up even if you’ve never lived on a Welsh commune and harvested your own kale.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
By Joe Dunthorne
319 pp. $25