Thursday, 9 February 2012

Submarine by Joe Dunthorne

The last word in coming of age novels appears to be Catcher in the Rye, which was referenced in most of the reviews on the back of my copy of Submarine. I’m not entirely sure if Dunthorne has created a Welsh Holden Caulfield in Oliver Tate, but he’s a memorable mix of misunderstood teenager and youthful antihero.


Narrator Oliver lives in Swansea with his depressed dad and his mother who has recently embarked on an affair with her capoeira teacher, an ageing hippy called Graham. Determined to keep the family unit together at all costs, Oliver tries to keep his mother out of Graham’s clutches, with a spectacular lack of success. Finally convinced that she is pregnant with the man’s child, Oliver sets out on a mission to get Graham out of their lives for good:

I will make Graham realize what he has done to my family by giving him the impression that I’ve lost it and am capable of anything. I don’t feel threatened by him: capoeira is the art of not hitting each other. I take an empty bottle of Robinsons into the cellar, fill it with one-third vodka, one-third apple, one-third cranberry. It is important to seem genuine.

Setting off for Graham’s house on the bus, Oliver starts knocking back the vodka mix. By the time he gets to his destination he’s a little squiffy, but still functioning clearly enough to break in. He investigates the house, fixes himself another drink:

Next to a clay-coloured bread bin in one corner sits a wine rack containing Gordon’s gin, whisky still in its cardboard tube and a Gran Reservas brandy. I pull out the brandy. In a cupboard next to the cooker I find a bell-bottomed glass. I pour myself way too much expensive brandy. I don’t even like brandy.

Finally after defenestrating a couple of ornaments and committing a few other minor acts of vandalism, he waits for Graham upstairs, hoping to ambush him when he gets back. Unfortunately, he passes out drunk on the man’s arrival and the old philanderer takes him home, stopping once or twice for Oliver to throw up. He’s sobered up a little by the time he gets to the front door, but not quite enough to make a dignified entrance:

I turn the key in the lock and lean on the door. It swings open with me attached. My parents are still up, sitting on the stairs in the half-dark, each clutching a glass of red wine.

His parents are having a romantic tête à tête – the marriage is saved. Well, it is until Oliver starts blurting out what he’s been up to and how he’s been protecting his mum... Dad decides to get some coffee. Oliver staggers around for a few moments until antiperistalsis sets in:

I feel another surge. I bow, twirling my hand, as a first of vomit moves up my throat, out of my mouth – it is bright red – and on to the linoleum.

Poetic, moving and genuinely funny, Submarine is a remarkable debut.

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