Book Review: The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne

The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne highlights the life of one exceptionally self-centered and incompetent 30-something man. Ray works as a internet journalist, writing about the latest developments in technology—a freelance position that allows him the unusual freedom to drink well into the night or picnic on a weekday afternoon, all the while his pregnant wife, Garthene, is slaving away in the Intensive Care Unit, compassionately caring for some of the sickest patients in the hospital. In a moment of rare and accurate self reflection, Ray contemplates his current situation and the demands soon to be placed on him as a father.

How much stronger would these feelings be for my own child? It had been good while it lasted, this shallow, narcissistic life, but it was too late now. Soon I would be selfless.

Together, Ray and Garthene are striving to upgrade their living arrangements from squalid apartment to something more appropriate for a growing young family. However, their plans are derailed by circumstances outside of their control, something Ray cannot bear. When an opportunity presents itself, he takes matters into his own hands, sending his life into a downward spiral that continues to appear to him as something outside of his control.

It was a bit embarrassing but the looter with the shorts was wearing a shirt that I own, the off-white one with tiny blue dots. Of all the suspects, he was the easiest to hate. He had a can of lager in one hand, another in his pocket. He looked picnic-ready, smiling. I wasn’t too proud to recognize a bit of myself in him and then slowly recognize all of myself in him because I was him and he was me, my own personal self.

Caught in the act of rifling through the desk of his estate agent, an act that to Ray remains harmless and undeserving of punishment, he is served a sentence of community service and an ankle bracelet that accompanies a curfew at nightfall. All the while, Ray cannot see how such a punishment impacts his wife, nor does he fully grasp the reason for such a decision. It isn’t until he is delivered a box of steaming stool that he begins to consider the perceived negativity in his actions and we then see a glimmer of his personal growth.

Since the police were not going to crush the perpetrators, it was clear to me that my only response was to be the bigger man, the biggest. I bravely worked through my hate mail. I apologized to each message, never copy-pasting from one to the next, always typing, bespoke, which seemed crucial.

This situation is just an example of the back and forth that Ray experiences as he struggles to become the adult society, and his future child, expects from him which goes against his inner oblivion at how to achieve such as transformation. At his core, Ray is a good person, though his outward narcissism and utter disregard for his actions distorts this. Throughout the story we witness an exaggerated series of events that highlight Ray’s failings, which are well matched to the very lessons he needs to learn. The question remains whether he can and will absorb what necessary wisdom can be gleaned from each instance.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Tin House Books

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