By Joe Dunthorne
Hamish Hamilton, 244pp, £12.99
What future is there for the children and grandchildren of the counterculture? If you are Kate and Albert, the protagonists of Joe Dunthorne's second novel, the answer seems to be not much. Brought up by latter-day hippies on a remote Welsh organic farm where it's OK to be in a loving relationship with a goat, Kate, 17, is at a state school and secretly trying for a place at Cambridge, while Albert, 11, is home-schooled and believes in the end of days. Both must battle to be allowed to think independently in a place where, despite claims to open-mindedness, neither independence nor thought is encouraged.
Submarine, Dunthorne's 2008 debut, earned enthusiastic reviews and was turned into a feature film. Comedies about outsiders demand sympathy, stylishness and a straight face, and Dunthorne - unlike, say, the young Martin Amis - possesses all three. With its cast of New Age dropouts, Wild Abandon is not exploring new subjects, but it is the contemporary details that make it so entertaining.
The Rave House (as it is known locally) has not just 50 acres in Wales to mismanage, but the internet, solar panels and skunk. Although Don, the leader of the commune, disapproves of TV ads, he is media-savvy to the point of having the group filmed for YouTube and is always "displaying his talent for hijacking someone else's life-changing trauma" with all the creepiness of a cult leader. Yet, for all that, this is a comedy not unlike Cold Comfort Farm, pitting a normal, bookish heroine against a parade of depressed deadbeats.
Kate's determination to escape, Albert's weird precocity, the paranoia of their parents' friend Patrick, the plausibly bonkers Ad-Guard, made from a plastic sheet that goes over the DVD player, the fashionable Goth jewellery designer who smugly dips in and out of the Rave House - all help to build a picture of a situation that is dancing on a knife edge. Don's commune is ageing and failing despite the help of wwoofers (volunteers on the farm) and other ecotourists. Both Kate and Albert are displaying the adolescent desire to rebel, but how do you rebel against rebels who are "easy with whatever", except by becoming normal, or madder than they are? The children's lives are no more stable than the wall of boxes dividing their shared bedroom from that of their parents. Their mum and dad's marriage is foundering, and Don believes that a rave is the only way of regenerating the community. All is set for an epic meltdown.
Part of Dunthorne's skill as a writer is his ear for dialogue (the scene in which Don tries to tell his son Albert in detail about his past sex life is painfully funny) and his ability to keep us guessing what could happen next. A woman potter is described as having "cheeks like apples that, to those who fantasised about such things, would have been the best bits, if she were to be cooked". The two children's mother is, in Albert's words, "a one-woman abattoir" and he is far too interested in his father's bolt-gun, so you can't be sure that a murder isn't on the cards. Annoyingly, Dunthorne does not develop many plot possibilities, leaving the novel at just over 240 pages long. Joanna Briscoe's new novel, You, set in a not-dissimilar commune in Devon, makes a better stab at storytelling.
What makes Wild Abandon gentler and more humane than might be expected is the author's open affection for his characters, and his refusal to make them stereotypical. Patrick turns out to be sadder and more sincere than we might guess at the beginning, and the children's mother, Freya, more sensible. The relationship between brother and sister, who have outgrown showering together, is convincingly odd and tender.
We can laugh at the description of Patrick's geodesic dome "looking like a testicle veined with fairy lights", and register the smartness of observations such as "there is no perceptible difference between something made with love and something made with spite, except spite works to a schedule", but it is the aspects of affection rather than affectation which make Dunthorne so promising.
Albert in particular is a wonderful creation, and seems close to Alexander McCall Smith's Bertie in spirit. Unknowingly, this young boy
is starved of contact with other children, and takes to the nutty proclamations of Marina the potter that the end of the world is nigh with desperate enthusiasm. His pompous belief that "I don't have anything in common with people my own age. They are infantile compared to me. They do not understand about the preservation of ancient earthworks" is exquisitely funny, as is his telephone manner when talking to journalists.
The question of how human beings today should live underpins the comedy with seriousness of purpose, and places Wild Abandon in a lineage of doomed literary utopias and arcadias of the past. It is too easy to laugh at alternative lifestyles, even if the credulity of this community is risible. And the body-painting, I must say, sounds pretty cool.
Amanda Craig's most recent novel is “Hearts and Minds" (Abacus, £8.99)