By Joe Dunthorne
Penguin, NZ$37 | Reviewed by Amy Brown

SOMEWHERE between Salingerís Holden Caulfield and Will, in Nick Hornbyís About a Boy, comes Oliver Tate, a Welsh, 15-year-old only child, long on vocabulary and short on charm. No, thatís not quite right; Oliverís blend of selfishness, lust, academic ability, vanity and confusion amounts to the sort of charm often present in the protagonist of a bildungsroman. Joyceís Stephen Daedalus had it, and so did Alice Munroís Del Jordan, but the fact they donít exist in our contemporary world of Google, iPods, therapists and vegetarian sandals, somehow makes them more likeable.

Oliver Tate, Joe Dunthorneís postmodernly self-conscious protagonist sets out his ambitions clearly on the bookís back cover. He wants to lose his virginity before he reaches the legal age, and he wants to know why his parents are acting strangely. Via a series of conquests and prat-falls, he achieves these objectives by the end of the novel, yet, isnít allowed to bask in a completely happy ending. The story of a fairly obnoxious teenager searching for his personal holy grail will apparently, the blurb claims, ďdelight readers of all agesĒ. Iím not sure about this, but I can say that, having picked up Submarine, expecting an overly easy and unsubtle read, full of vivid fumbling sex scenes and teenage toilet humour, I was pleasantly proved wrong.

Thereís a certain amount of vividly depicted sex and toilet humour, but itís not gratuitous. Dunthorne, a 25-year-old graduate of the University of East Anglia Creative Writing MA and a Curtis Brown prize winner, adeptly uses Oliver for all heís worth. The characterisation is pitch perfect, which means that setting, dialogue, and, indeed, everything that is filtered through Oliverís eyes and ears, rings true. As he develops throughout the novel, so too does the readerís view of supporting characters, such as Oliverís parents, his girlfriend Jordana, his motherís ex-boyfriend Graham, and Zoe, the ďfatĒ girl at Oliverís school. Although itís easy to forget at first, Dunthorne and Tate are certainly not equivalent; while Tate is sinking slowly into a self-inflicted mire of disappointment, Dunthorne has carefully woven parallels, references and escape routes which give the novel some necessary substance.

Submarine is preoccupied with diaries, secrets, illnesses, cures, mistakes, forgiveness bullying, bitchiness and other facets of growing up (and being grown-up). Itís so firmly set in the early 21st century that mentions of O Levels, TV chefs, pilates and email, and the occasional use of zany fonts, can get a bit garish. However, whoís to say how such details will age?

I donít think Iíve ever said, ĎI really feel like reading a contemporary Welsh coming-of-age novel,í and this may be why Submarine hasnít, as far as I can tell so far, changed my life (which it presumptuously suggests it might). Dunthorneís isnít a novel that Iíll discuss at length, but it is an engaging, comical debut.