Christos Tsiolkas / Allen & Unwin
Like the joyfully immersed baby on the cover of the Nirvana’s Nevermind, Danny Kelly belongs in the water. He’s a swimming prodigy from a working class family who, at fourteen, is deemed as deserving of a scholarship to an elite Melbourne private school and its even more elite swimming program. While Danny has nothing but contempt for what he and his best friend Demet call C***s College, he is encouraged into his single-minded fixation, to prove himself even more relentless than the privileged rich kids at aiming at the dream of winning-at-all-costs. At C***s College, Danny isn’t just beating his competitors in the pool, he’s defeating his own working class roots; he’s defeating the expectations of his schoolmates who never really let him forget that he is not to the manor born. But while the young Danny can’t admit any doubt that he is going to be a champion, from the Nationals to the Pan Pacs and, he hopes, to the Commonwealth and Olympic games, it’s clear, already at the beginning of the novel, where we encounter him as a grown man, tentatively entering the waters of Loch Lomond, that his vision of himself will fail, that he will not take up a place in the national pantheon of swimming’s golden boys. There is no place for the Barracuda among the Thorpedoes and Missiles. When he fails, Danny is left without the language with which to imagine another story for himself; he can recognise no other Danny Kelly but the one in the water that bends and shifts at his will. He falls prey to a self-hatred that erupts in a shameful, violent catastrophe. To survive he is forced to find a new language, to transform himself, to effectively reboot himself. It’s an uneasy and emotionally difficult journey. Tsiolkas builds the novel around a structure in which we encounter Danny in episodes along his timeline in both forward and reverse order. The deepest hell of the catastrophe is not the end point of the novel; it is a launching place that searches for its roots and its long-reaching consequences. While this provides the framework for the familiar exploration of the dark journey of a single character, Tsiolkas has dared himself to go beyond the uncomfortable place between psyche and viscera, beyond the self-absorbed outrage at class rigidity. He applies to Danny Kelly a more mature treatment of familiar themes, an uncovering of the desires that in an overly competitive world are configured to pit people against one another, and finds in them the tools to re-imagine the self, fashion them into generosity, into goodness, even into love. Tsiolkas’ new readers, those who encountered him first through The Slap and its episodic, near soap-operatic dissection of contemporary Australian social mores, will find in Barracuda a novel that seems like the satisfying extended play of one of that novel’s characters. Those who have been following Tsiolkas from his much riskier earlier novels, Loaded, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe, will recognise the breaking of something like new ground here as he continues to chronicle and critique the contemporary Australian mood.