The best way I can describe Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel Barracuda is to liken it to what Tsiolkas would define as a “good man”, tough on the outside, but tender within. I don’t know how Tsiolkas does it, but he manages to reach into your heart while at the same time confronting you to your core.
On the surface, Barracuda is about success and failure, specifically in sport. The plot concerns Danny Kelly aka Psycho Kelly aka Barracuda who is a talented swimmer. He receives a scholarship to attend one of Melbourne’s elite private schools and be coached on the swim team. Danny, with his Scottish truck-driving father and Greek hair-dresser mother, is not the normal demographic for the school and feels an outsider from the start, but he knows – or believes, at least – that he can be “the strongest, the fastest, the best”. However, things don’t go according to plan and Danny, who had poured his all into a single vision for his future, is devastated. The novel explores how a young man copes with such a major blow to his self-image, what happens when his expectations for his future are destroyed. Tsiolkas examines the social, political and economic environment in which Danny lives and the role they play in what happens to him, but he also delves deeply into the psyche, because what happens to Danny can only be partly explained by external forces. In the end we are, as Danny comes to realise, responsible for ourselves and our actions.
Contemporary writers annoyed him
Barracuda is quite a page-turner, but it bears slow reading, because it is a carefully constructed novel and some of its joys come from considering what Tsiolkas is doing. There is an amusing moment in the book when Danny, now in jail, becomes an enthusiastic book reader – primarily of 19th century novels. When the librarian asks:
‘Why are you always buried in those old farts?’ Danny would accept the teasing good-naturedly for he knew it was apt. Contemporary writers annoyed him, he found their worlds insular, their style too self-conscious and ironic.
I say amusing because there’s a self-consciousness in Tsiolkas’ style and I can only assume that he is having a little dig at himself. The novel’s structure reminded me somewhat of Evie Wyld’s All the birds, singing (my review) because both start at a point in time and then, in alternating chapters (sections), radiate forwards and backwards from that point. Tsiolkas, though, follows this structure a little less rigorously than Wyld, and he combines it with a change in person. In the first half of the novel, the sections moving backward are told in third person (limited) through the eyes of Danny, while the sections moving forward are told in first person through the eyes of Dan. This effectively enables the growing, maturing Dan to disassociate himself somewhat from his old self, although the dissociation – or perhaps the reintegration – of the two selves have a long way to go when the book opens. In the second part of the novel the point-of-view is reversed with the third person used for the older Dan, and first person for the younger, perhaps suggesting some progress towards the realignment of the selves? I need to think about this a bit more! Not only does this book warrant slow-reading, but rereading wouldn’t hurt either.
He couldn’t bridge the in-between
A significant issue for Dan is managing the two worlds he finds himself in:
It’s like two worlds were part of different jigsaw puzzles. At first, he’d tried to fit the pieces together but he just couldn’t do it, it was impossible. So he kept them separate: some pieces belonged to this side of the river, to the wide tree-lined boulevards and avenues of Toorak and Armadale, and some belonged to the flat uniform suburbs in which he lived.
When the two worlds conflict, Danny feels split open, cracked apart. “No one could ever put him back together”. And so, he starts to occupy what he calls “the in-between” but that leaves him silent, and alone. This dissection of worlds, of “class”, and of anglo-Australia versus immigrant Australia, is an ongoing concern for Tsiolkas. We came across it in his previous novel, The slap (my review) and we see it again here. Tsiolkas is not the only writer exploring this territory, but he’s one of the gutsiest because he’s not afraid to present the ugliness nor does he ignore the greys, the murky areas where “truth” is sometimes hard to find (though he doesn’t use the word “truth”).
While Danny is the main conduit for teasing out the tensions in society between two worlds, other characters also reflect it. There’s Danny’s childhood friend, Demet, whose working class migrant background is challenged when she goes to university, and his school friend Luke, a nerdy ostracised boy at the elite school who, with his Vietnamese mother and Greek father, is also “half and half”. These characters manage to traverse their worlds more easily than Danny, but Tsiolkas shows that it isn’t easy.
His father was a good man
Barracuda is about a lot of things. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Tsiolkas taps into the zeitgeist of contemporary suburban Australia. But I might explore that in another post, because this post is getting long and I do want to end on the theme that struck me the most, that of defining “a good man”.
Throughout the novel, Danny meets many men – his father, grandfather and coach, in particular, when he’s a boy, and his lover Clyde, old schoolmate Luke and brain-damaged cousin Dennis when he’s an adult. As an adolescent, and somewhat typically, Danny loves his grandfather, rejects his father, and dotes (until he “fails”) on his Coach. Adult Dan is more circumspect about men, but sees good qualities in Clyde and Luke, while still rejecting his father. None of these men, though, seem able to break through his destructive self-absorption. However, late in the novel, living a self-imposed lonely life, albeit one now committed to helping others, Dan has an epiphany. In a confrontation with his father, he suddenly realises:
His father was a good man. It struck him with a force of revelation, exultation, light flooding through him. His father was a good man. His father was the hero of his own life.
At this moment, he realises he wants to be a good man. He also starts to get a glimmer of what a good man is, and it has nothing to do with being the strongest, fastest and best.
I have more to say about this book, and so will do a follow-up post rather than write a longer essay here. Meanwhile, I know there are readers of this blog who do not like Tsiolkas. He is, I agree, a confronting writer. His characters are not aways easy to like, and he doesn’t shy away from their grubbiest (that is, unkind, violent, sexual) thoughts, but for me he has some valid concerns to share and I want to hear them.
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2013