Emily Bitto: Wild Abandon

by Jennifer Bryce

There really is a city in Ohio, US called Zanesville and sadly it is now remembered for a horrific massacre of exotic animals that occurred in 2011 when Vietnam Veteran Terry Thompson allegedly set free fifty of fifty-six animals he had kept in a private zoo, before he shot himself. The fifty animals who’d been released ended up dead, killed by local police to protect the public. Emily Bitto has made this incident a focus of her latest novel, Wild Abandon, that as well as being a tribute to the fate of those innocent animals is a kind of coming-of-age story.

Will leaves Australia, a twenty-two year-old, adrift in the world, fleeing from the failure of his first love (Laura) and also from the person he fears he has become — to a large extent he blames the cultural cringe of growing up in what he sees as a ‘backward’ country town. Away from the constraints of home, Will can experiment with different ways of being and at first he throws himself into the New York art scene — that is, the art scene available to him through a friend of his older brother, who has lived in New York for a few years. And so follows a brief time of nihilistic hedonism — a few beers for breakfast is nothing, he is constantly drunk and high. Bitto has said that she wanted this writing to mirror excess and she seems to have achieved this admirably: ‘He passed a group of young black guys with a portable speaker playing Kendrick Lamar and he drifted through chained pools of scent — dog pee and sullage and sweet weed smoke — fingering constantly the ziplock edges of the baggies in his pocket. / At the corner of his overhyped ebullience, he knew, hovered the threat of despair…’ [pages 10 – 11]

The people Will meets in the New York art scene are desperately trying to prove themselves — the only way to escape is to get high. Fortunately, before he becomes totally unaccountable for his actions, Will decides to hire a car and set off on the inevitable road trip. He ends up in Littleproud, Ohio where a girl he knew at school (absolutely no romantic interest) now lives with the husband, JT, she met on line and she’s about to have a baby: a domestic scene very different from Will’s experience of New York.

Will badly needs to earn some money, but he doesn’t have a Green Card. Through JT Will meets Wayne, who seems to be modelled on the Vietnam Vet Terry Thompson. Wayne needs help with feeding his exotic animals. Initially Will is scared of many of the animals — lions, tigers, bears — but he loves some of the baby cubs who are still being bottle-fed. At Wayne’s we are thrown into a sweaty, undomesticated life: chicken nuggets are the main food, dirty feet, I could smell the carpets… Wayne comes to like Will and the two work together feeding the animals and gathering huge supplies of chicken meat from a rather dodgy processing place.

People who know the story of the Zanesville massacre can probably anticipate what will happen in the story. It came as a shock to me. Reports of escaped animals and then, Wayne’s dead body found. But the horror above everything else is the fate of those exotic animals innocently foraging outside the fence because Wayne had opened their cages. Those animals were used to kind treatment from humans and wouldn’t attack unless provoked. But a large proportion of them were slaughtered.

Will returns to Melbourne and, without using cliché, Bitto describes how life goes on, the world keeps revolving, ‘he would at last stop thinking about Wayne, and Laura too…’. And then there is a coda, where we see Wayne years before in Vietnam — one of the many traumatic experiences he had and the solace he found in feeding a little monkey.