Summer. Up before the sun, slip on speedos and grab towel, water, goggles and cap and drive ten minutes to the pool. This morning we warmed up with drills; hard core, fin kick, hip rotation, catch and pull, breathe. Halfway through the aerobic set everything came together and I swear, Tsiolkas is right – it really does feel like flying, sluicing through chemical blue water like it’s the sky.
Squad will never be the same again since I’ve read Barracuda. Now, in that meditative zone where you focus on the black line, all I can think about is Danny Kelly and the violence that pervades this unflinching contemplation of hope, hate, failure and love. Barracuda is a Lonely Planet guide to the Australian soul with every signpost, pitfall and paradox held up to the searing light of Tsiolkas’s consideration. I lose count of laps trying to fathom all the complexities this book throws up.
It revisits many of the issues in his previous novel The Slap, which was made into a television miniseries of the same name – ethnicity, relationships, class, parenting, suburban life experience and, at the heart of it, violence. Barracuda takes the violence so prevalent in Australian society – that destructive, punitive, vengeful impulse – and puts it at the core of its protagonist’s being.
We first encounter Danny in Scotland with his lover, where he has gone to meet his father’s relatives, perhaps looking for clues to the mystery of who he is and how to inhabit that person. He is aware of but doesn’t know his mother’s estranged Greek family, who rejected her years ago when she renounced their God. He’s about to return to Australia to face his demons. The reader is not quite sure what mature Danny has done to fill him with so much self-loathing, but as soon as his younger self emerges, so does the structural pattern of two separate narratives, which travel in simultaneously opposite directions. There are two Dannys in this story – the child and the man – and all the dramatic energy clusters round his transition. It is certainly a coming-of-age story, but for Danny it is about the getting of rage.
Young Danny comes into focus as a driven and gifted swimmer:
His whole life, Danny Kelly only wanted one thing: to win Olympic gold. Everything he’s ever done – every thought, every dream, every action – takes him closer to that moment of glory, of vindication, when the world will see him for what he is: the fastest, the strongest and the best.
Everything in Danny’s younger life, including his family, is bent towards that goal. Like Danny, I imagined myself following in the wake of Olympic golden glory and ploughed up and down a pool every morning and night for most of my childhood years, my long-suffering mother driving for miles to far-flung country towns for inter-club meets. Thankfully, I was never good enough. But Danny is.
His prodigious talent has been identified as champion material by the coach at a dead posh school for boys and he is offered a scholarship. Danny and his homies call it ‘Cunt’s College’, the kind of institution that grooms Prime Ministers, lawyers, captains of industry and golden-boy swim stars – they hope. From day one, outsider Danny realises that he has to prove he is better than the others. The only avenue to acceptance is to beat them not only in the pool but also in the playground, where young men taunt and goad each other to violence. He is bullied relentlessly until he can’t take the humiliation a moment longer and lashes out. The ferocity of his reaction earns him the grudging respect of the A-team and the nickname Barracuda:
He’s the psycho, he’s everything they want to be but don’t have the guts to become. He’s going to show them all.
When Danny’s father is sceptical of his scholarship offer, Danny transfers his allegiance to the coach, and then seeks the approval of the golden boys, whom he quite accurately perceives as the most powerful. In the growing chasm between his father and himself, we find another layer of hate and rage. Danny thinks his father doesn’t believe in him when, in reality, his father only wants to protect him from the possible hurt of failure.
He is admitted into a world of privilege, where life is easy and the future’s assured in the rarified atmosphere of wealth and power, but his acceptance is conditional on success. When he fails to win his event at an international meet in Japan, Danny’s world collapses – the only thing he has ever imagined himself doing is gone, along with every shred of self-esteem and self-worth he had bound up in it. Tsiolkas has said of this novel that:
‘I decided that I was going to put right up front in the book, that this is the story of someone who fails in his dream … how you deal with failure and how you deal with shame …’
When Danny stops believing in himself, he plummets like Icarus. The pool may as well be full of mud. Once again shunned by his elite friends, Danny responds in the only way he knows how. The fall-out from his loss of self-control separates him from his adolescence and sets the tone for his adulthood.
Once set up, the novel’s impetus lies in discovering how Danny’s failure will be resolved. The two narrative threads are beautifully balanced: it’s like watching two trains on the same track travelling towards the wreck you know will happen but you can’t look away because you’re transfixed by the inevitability of it. One track follows the events that lead to Danny’s fall from grace, the other follows his adult path to redemption. Along the way Tsiolkas unpicks who Danny has become, while at the same time putting him back together. It is a remarkably effective and revealing structural device.
At face value, Barracuda appears to be a straightforward story about class, but it is much more subtle, nuanced and complex. Danny’s story is more about the effect of the wrench that removes him from the close protection of his familiars and into being a fish out of water, the first step in his enragement.
When the boys go to swim meets out of town, they stay at the coach’s home in a middle-class suburb where Danny feels most comfortable in his not-too-big, not-too-small, just-right kind of a house. Danny gets the big double bed in the front room while Coach
sleeps on the couch. On the wall are photos of previous boys like Danny , other swimmers the coach has identified and nurtured. I began to suspect the coach of paedophilia, but that is too simplistic for Tsiolkas, though what appears to be well-intentioned patronage is actually a bit creepy.
The co-option of Danny’s talent could be considered a form of child abuse. Taking him out of his family’s sphere of influence drives a wedge between Danny and his parents, whom he now regards as an embarrassment, and emboldens him to enter into friendships with the rich boys. The school is not innocent either, only barely tolerating the class and ethnic differences of Danny and his brainiac Asian friend and their capacity to sell the school to fee-paying parents who hope they can buy their children the same glittering prizes. Kids like Danny are dispensable – there is always another wannabe in the wings waiting to take his place, to ‘prove’ himself worthy. But worthy of what? Indulgence of the elite? A crack at the big time? Fame? Stardom? Money?
This is Tsiolkas’s fifth novel, and I think his best so far. It’s as if every time he writes a book he strips away another layer from not only our national self, but from the reader personally. I look forward to them like the birth of a child, and this one – after five years – is perfectly formed.
Barracuda doesn’t miss a beat. Every last word is in its perfect place. And there is some spectacularly beautiful writing: in particular a sparkling moment from the past when Danny is held aloft by his father, eclipsing the sun, then swooping down into the water like a gull, is ‘flown’ back up into the light to be a giant on his father’s shoulders. The passage of Danny’s childish thoughts throughout that amazing cinematic scene is utterly heart-rending. A Miles Franklin winner, for my money.
Christos Tsiolkas Barracuda Allen & Unwin 2013 PB 528pp $32.99
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