Two books came to mind as I was reading Trent Dalton’s debut novel Boy swallows universe. One was Steve Toltz’s out-there book about fathers and sons, A fraction of the whole (my review), and the other was Tim Winton’s Breath (my post), which explores what it is to be a good man, but more on these anon.
I had three reasons for wanting to read the book. Firstly, it was my reading group’s first book of the year, and secondly, it was recommended by two people whose literary tastes often match mine, my brother and an ex-reading group friend. Finally, there was its Brisbane setting. I spent six special years of my childhood in the Sandgate area of Brisbane, where, I’d read, Dalton had also lived while growing up. Fortunately, all these reasons were justified as this novel is an excellent read – engrossing in content and intriguing in style.
Boy swallows universe covers around six years of its protagonist Eli Bell’s life, starting in 1985 when he is 12 years old and living with his mother, Frankie Bell, and stepfather Lyle. He and his mute older brother August are regularly babysat by Slim (based on the real criminal, convicted murderer Arthur Ernest Halliday) while Frankie and Lyle are out dealing drugs. Slim, for all his apparent criminality, turns out to be one of the most important wise people in Eli’s life – and, while he isn’t always around as Eli grows older, it is to Slim that Eli often speaks, consciously or subconsciously, drawing on his ideas and advice, as he faces life’s challenges. Eli’s relationship with Slim is just one of the threads and refrains that hold this big book together.
a genre-bending coming-of-age crime novel with a touch of magic
Terrible things happen in the book – and Eli and August are pushed around, buffeted by the things that happen in the adult world and over which they have little or no control. Part way through the book, having lived most of their lives with Frankie and Lyle in Darra (Brisbane’s southwest), they find themselves dumped with their damaged alcoholic father Robert Bell, whom they don’t know, and who lives in Bracken Ridge (Brisbane’s north in the Sandgate electorate). While Frankie and Lyle, for all their illegal doings, provide a generally stable home-life, the one provided by Robert is erratic, affected by his alcoholic binges. And yet, here too, the two resourceful boys find love – and more, support.
All this probably suggests to you a straightforward book about dysfunctional families, of which there are many these days. But, you would be wrong, because wrapped around the domestic is a story of drug dealing, drug double-dealing and violence, that takes this book into a whole other realm. In fact, the best way to describe it is as a genre-bending coming-of-age crime novel with a touch of magic. You with me?
Now, I’m going to shift gear a bit and return to those two books I mentioned in my opening paragraph. The book’s opening line is “Your end is a dead blue wren”, and we soon discover that these words have been written in air by August, who is sitting on their brown brick fence while Eli is being taught to drive by Slim. There’s a bizarre edge to all this which, in addition to the fact that the book is mostly about men and boys, fathers and sons, made me think of Toltz’s A fraction of the whole. However, while Toltz’s “bizarre” lies more in the absurd area, Dalton’s is more magical. There’s a red telephone in a secret room, for example, that always seems to ring when Eli is around. Who is at the other end? August at one point says it is he, but is it really? It doesn’t really matter, in fact, because the phone seems to be more about deflecting or, perhaps, relocating fear and trauma than about reality. It works because Eli’s voice and the sort of jaunty in-the-moment tone make it work.
More interesting to me, though, is the link with Winton’s Breath. They are very different books. For a start, Breath is more novella, while Boy swallows universe verges on the big, baggy monster. But, both books are fundamentally about what makes a good man – and, in neither case is the answer simple. In fact, it comes more often than not from flawed, if not sometimes bad, men. From early on in Dalton’s novel, Eli asks various men – family, friends, criminals, strangers – “are you a good man?” Many are surprised and know not what to answer. Gradually though Eli puts together his own picture from their answers and bevaviours, until, near the end, he says (addressing Slim in his mind):
This is what a good man does, Slim. Good men are brash and brave and fly by the seat of their pants that are held up by suspenders made of choice. This is my choice, Slim. Do what is right, not what is easy … Do what is human.
Now, before I get onto the writing, a bit about this genre-bending novel’s plot. As I mentioned above, the novel’s plot-line relates to drug double-dealing. This results, at the end, in quite a suspenseful, page-turning adventure that was much enjoyed by many in my reading group. But, not so much by me who finds reading action pretty boring. Indeed, if I have one question about the book, it’s whether it really needs the final chase. I think the point would have been made had the novel concluded just before it – but that final adventure will help the novel adapt well to film, and to a film that many will want to see, so I won’t be too churlish about it.
And, anyhow, it’s a small criticism because I greatly enjoyed the book. It is so well constructed. Little details dropped in one place are picked up in another; little verbal refrains recur adding both poetry and meaning without being heavy-handed. Even the curious, often cryptic, three-word chapter headings, like “Boy writes words”, “Boy steals ocean”, and “Boy masters time”, are explained late in the book when the Courier Mail editor asks Eli to tell his life in three words.
There’s also lovely descriptive, sometimes lightly satirical writing, such as this from the Vietnamese restaurant scene:
There’s two more tanks dedicated to the crayfish and mud crabs who always seem to resigned to the fact they’ll form tonight’s signature dish. They sit beneath their tank rocks and their cheap stone underwater novelty castle decorations, so breezy bayou casual all they’re missing is a harmonica and a piece of straw to chew on. They’re so unaware of their importance, so oblivious to the fact they are the reason people drive from as far away as the Sunshine Coast to come taste their insides baked in salt and pepper and chill paste.
Then, of course there’s the characterisation, and the first person voice. Eli is such a kind and likeable character. His coming-of-age is a tough one, but he’s positive, loving, open-minded and willing to learn. He’s also courageous. It could almost be schmaltzy except that you see the grit and know that he has been tested. More cynical readers might think Eli is too good to be true, but the book’s light tone and touch of magic remind us that this is not social realism. It’s “true” to the heart of what Eli (and I believe Dalton) experienced, but it’s not fact. It’s about surviving trauma. Dalton has, I’d say, found a perfect recipe for conveying dysfunction and accompanying trauma while also showing how it can be mentally and spiritually survived.
A good read, and a meaningful book that got my reading group off to a rip-roaring start for 2019.
Boy swallows universe
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2018