“A romp with a dark underbelly” – The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne

Between the ages of 2-3, children learn about sharing. It’s a difficult concept to bed-down, with most resisting the notion that life is more than a series of smash, grab & run raids. That one does not have to build a moat around one’s possessions. That ‘attack first, ask questions later’ is not always the best option. Lengthy though the process is, it’s hoped that the message is both understood and adopted by the age of thirty. Unfortunately, as Joe Dunthorne shows us in The Adulterants, we flatter ourselves to think this true.

Through a cast of characters that are brilliantly sketched (and thus painfully recognisable), Dunthorne takes us into the heartland of late modernity’s finest – Clapton. Moving within a confined locus (zones 2-4 of East London), we observe the pinnacle of human evolution in his natural habitat as he goes to house parties, fingers his friend’s wife, gets beaten up, and then proceeds to combine the get-go of a corpse with the aspirations of Caesar. But Dunthorne isn’t delivering fire & brimstone from a pulpit: The Adulterants is, first and foremost, a comedy – a black comedy; a romp with a dark underbelly, bristling with the protagonist’s nervous energy.

Our ‘hero’, a man in his early thirties, is a prototypical waster – not wholly without talent but lacking the wherewithal to harness what he has, and forever side-tracked by the concerns that beset modern man: my job is rubbish, I secretly envy (despise) my friends, I love my wife but am insecure and oh, what is life without vicarious pleasure? And last but by no means least, how the eff do I get on the property ladder??? The story takes a turn with a London riot, after which the protagonist, through a run of bad moves and even worse luck, ends up as ‘the face of the riots’ – and thereafter, the fragile components of his life are one-by-one dismantled. Via the episode, we get a birds-eye view of the national mood, and the currents in which we all swim / thrash around desperately. And Dunthorne’s (subtle) take on how that mood is cultivated, controlled and channelled, whilst all the while giving us the illusion of freewill, is quietly savage:

The Sun’s front page had that picture with the headline, ‘Havin’ a Riot Laugh’. The Mirror went with ‘What a Riot’. … All the newspapers used the same photo, which showed the owner sitting on the edge of the pavement with his head in his hands, behind him the smashed window of his uninsured business of thirty-five years, while in the foreground I am happily receiving two cans of lager, dressed for a picnic. …

If you search for Happy Tragedy Man you will see where some jokers have Photoshopped me into various historical atrocities. There I am, smiling at Hiroshima. There I am, smiling as the towers burn. There I am, smiling in the village of Son My.”

The Adulterants is a perfect-10. Judged from any angle – characterisation, humour, the (oblique) ‘state of the nation’ commentary, the story per se and enjoyment of reading – it all hits the sweet-spot.

Any Cop?: It’s madcap, bitter-sweet, at times excruciating, but unceasingly brilliant and so, so funny.


Tamim Sadikali

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