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The Adulterants: a wickedly funny millennial Bildungsroman from Submarine’s Joe Dunthorne

An insightful portrait of the peculiarities of modern masculinity.

At the heart of The Adulterants, Joe Dun­thorne’s millennial Bildungsroman, is Ray. Almost 34 (exactly when millennials are supposed to come of age is anyone’s guess), Ray is an underemployed freelance tech journalist and dad-to-be. He lives with his pregnant wife Garthene, an intensive care nurse, in north-east London, surrounded by a tight ensemble of friends who have more than a whiff of late-night Channel 4 comedy about them.

Ray has an inverse midas touch. When he accepts a can of lager from a stranger during a disturbance that resembles the 2011 London riots, his face ends up on a mobile billboard along with an appeal to “Shop a Looter”. He is convicted of aggravated trespass and handling stolen goods, having used the country’s worst unrest for two decades to break into his estate agent’s office and check the status of a “horrible maisonette” in Clapton on which he and Garthene have made a bid. “Buy-to-let,” he sees on the document that confirms the sale. Ray is gobsmacked: hood-up, downcast, barely aware that a group of young men are attempting to remove a flat-screen TV from the wall. “I let myself fill with anger. Small-scale landlords think nobody sees their quiet evil.”

Although he gets off lightly – because he is white – for this most London of crimes, Ray’s conviction is just one in a series of catastrophes that come thicker and faster as the slim novel unfolds. In this way he resembles Tommy Wilhelm, the thwarted anti-hero in Saul Bellow’s 1956 novella, Seize the Day.

Deposited amid a landscape of yum yums and Percy Pigs, viral shame, adultery and ankle tags, Tommy 2.0 is similarly on track for a moment of tearful catharsis. But where Bellow’s schlemiel reaches an atonement of sorts by weeping at a stranger’s funeral, Ray is less picky about where he loses it. “I had cried more times in the last month than in the last decade,” he says. “I was a crier now. The town crier.” It’s the old literary tussle between character and fate. Do these flawed beings deserve the punishment meted out to them, or do circumstances pin them down and punch them in the eye, over and over again?

Ray doesn’t give up. His disposition is often inexplicably sunny. How many modern writers would allow such unabashed joy to emerge from the trappings of comfortable coupledom? “[We] had imagined peeling back the carpet to reveal the floorboards beneath,” Garthene and Ray muse contentedly. “The thought of discovering floorboards. Bourgeois archeology”. Dunthorne has successfully shifted the whimsical adolescent voice that made his name in 2008’s Submarine, that of 15-year-old Oliver Tate, into adulthood.

The Adulterants is thrust-the-book-at-the-person-next-to-you hilarious. Its insights into the peculiarities of the British middle class approaching birthing age are as astute as they are merciless.

“Though I didn’t have my baby yet, I already had my righteousness,” Ray says. “I spent my time trying to think of ways to get rid of Lee,” he explains, after a failed attempt at polyamory by fellow almost-adults Lee and Marie. He decides to palm Lee off on somebody else. “That was the whole point of friends, in the modern age,” Ray says. “To replace the family, welfare state and mental health services.”

The book has been edited so well there’s not an inch of fat left on the prose, which at times gives it the feel of stand-up comedy. This is never more true than in scenes where Ray makes things tricky for his stoical wife – pregnant and working night shifts, accosted by police at her apartment door – a woman who appears so forgiving as to seem absent. She does not make jokes.

The plot takes care of this to some degree (I won’t spoil it by saying how). Although things go awry for Ray, for Garthene, their friends and for Clapton – my favourite sliver of rapidly gentrifying London, not just a backdrop to riots, but to pollution, misuse, underfunding and poverty jostling up against imported riches – what the novel ultimately asks is what it takes to make a parent. The book’s final image, of a couple outside an Irish pub forcefully agreeing that the other is not too drunk to drive their children home, is an apt point at which to end.

Despite financial straits, mania, powerlessness and egocentrism, Ray’s better qualities – loyalty, moral consideration and warmth – outweigh his failures. We never doubt his fatherly potential, even if he does. Among the den of snakes that is modern masculinity few are as good, or at least want to be as good, as Ray. 

The Adulterants
Joe Dunthorne
Hamish Hamilton, 192pp, £12.99

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

Credit: The Bureau/Film4 Productions/British Film Council
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Lean on Pete builds on the proud history of horses in film

Cinema’s equine love affair is in no danger of dimming.

The mane attraction in cinemas next week is Andrew Haigh’s film adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel Lean On Pete, the story of a teenage boy and the horse he rescues.

If there’s any justice, audiences will gallop rather than trot to see it. Anyone who hasn’t read the book could be forgiven for expecting an inspirational, uplifting tale. Maybe, like the kid in Carroll Ballard’s beautiful, dialogue-light 1979 film The Black Stallion, the hero of Lean On Pete will train his four-legged companion to be a champion racehorse. But that isn’t how things turn out. Not even close. Haigh’s picture has more in common with Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson’s plaintive 1966 study of the sad life of a donkey, or Ken Loach’s Kes. Boy and horse help alleviate the other’s loneliness and suffering, at least in the short term, but they reflect it too.

That’s also the role of the horse that 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) finds tied up in Fish Tank, and attempts to liberate. As its title suggests, Andrea Arnold’s 2009 drama is not short on nature metaphors; there’s also a dog called Tennents, and a carp that meets a sticky end. To be honest, the horse is probably pushing things a bit. Don’t you see? It’s really Mia and she wants to set it free because she herself yearns to be emancipated! Yeah, yeah, we get it. But such objections count for little next to the sheer physical might of a horse on screen. There’s no getting around it. Did you ever see a horse that didn’t exude awesomeness, magnificence and film-star charisma? They’ve got what it takes.

Trigger was first out the gate. Though when Olivia de Havilland rode him in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he was still going by the name Golden Cloud, which sounds uncomfortably like an obscure sexual practice. Roy Rogers coughed up $2,500 to buy him, then changed the animal’s name when his co-star Smiley Burnette remarked that the beast was “quick on the trigger.” It stuck. Trigger and Rogers first appeared together in 1938 in Under Western Stars. Down the years, other horses sometimes stood in for him, so estimates vary as to how many appearances the horse-formerly-known-as-Golden-Cloud actually made. You’d need a photo finish, though, to tell the difference.

A horse plays a vital part in Valeska Grisebach’s recent Western, a tense and mysterious study of German labourers working in Bulgaria. The title demands at least one horse, I suppose, as well as the various macho stand-offs that occur in the course of the film, but its presence introduces an air of nobility and calm amidst the general lawlessness. “Horses make everything alright,” says a character in Willy Vlautin’s most recent novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, and you’d have to agree. When the horse in Western is imperilled, you know trouble is a-coming. Look what happened in The Godfather.

Horse sense tells you these creatures have got to be respected. In the sort-of Bond movie Never Say Never Again (essentially a second adaptation of Thunderball, made possible due to complicated copyright reasons pertaining to the original novel), there’s a nasty stunt in which a horse leaps from a great height into the ocean, hitting the water upside down. There was a furore about it at the time of release in 1983 and it tends to be excised on those rare occasions when the film is screened today. Quite right, too. The filmmakers’ cavalier attitude toward animal safety really takes the Seabiscuit.

Equine enthusiasts aren’t short of cinematic opportunities to indulge their passion—everything from National Velvet and International Velvet to War Horse, Phar Lap and The Horse Whisperer. Among the various incarnations of Black Beauty, allow me to flag up the 1994 version, adapted and directed by Caroline Thompson, the pen behind Edward Scissorhands. Sadly it has no trace of the stirring theme music from the 1970s television series (surely a contender for greatest TV theme ever) but there is ample compensation in Alan Cummings’s gentle Scottish lilt, which gives Beauty’s internal monologue the ebbing rhythm of a bedtime story. Human roles are shaved bare but David Thewlis gets the sweetest moment, when Beauty steals his doorstep sandwich, gambols about with it victoriously, then showers him in a confetti of crumbs.

Jockeying for position with all these movie horses, though, are some that don’t exist anywhere except in the imagination. I’m referring, of course, to the invisible ones on which King Arthur rides through medieval England in Monty Python and the Holy Grail while his servant follows nearby, clapping together two halves of a coconut shell. This was the ultimate case of necessity being the mother of comic invention, since the budget wouldn’t stretch to actual horses. It’s just a shame that when Arthur later encounters three fabled knights, their catchphrase turns out to be “Nii!” rather than “neigh.”

Lean On Pete opens 4 May. Western is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.