Christos Tsiolkas takes on Australian society once more in his new novel, Barracuda, and there are plenty of reading-group talking points in this follow-up to The Slap (2008). While there is no mistaking the Big Issue goals of the novel, this is also an uncompromising, loving portrayal of one man who wants to find a way not to damage himself and those around him. It’s the story of how Dan Kelly fights through personal and social barriers towards an ethical self he can live with – or, to use Tsiolkas’s own imagery, it’s about how he must swim through barracuda-infested waters to reach a safe harbour and tranquillity.
Dan wins a scholarship to an expensive Melbourne school because the swim coach reckons he is an Olympic medallist in the making. Dan has an obsessive desire to live a life that is totally geared towards winning, but he also has a fatal flaw – resentful anger. Always on the lookout for a slight against his western-suburbs family and his ‘wog’ background, Danny is his own worst enemy. Confused by his feelings, he self-destructs only after he has physically hurt others.
But there is hope. Dan learns to live when he finds something he is good at – working with disabled men, which defuses his anger. It is a modest life compared with swimming fast and winning conspicuously, but it has a future, an integrity that enables Dan to like himself at last, to excuse his personal history and inherited flaws.
Tsiolkas is more of a polemicist than a stylist. While there is more to this book than an entertaining demand to think about the ethics of contemporary society, the polemic has padded the book in a way that a stylist might have eschewed. Tsiolkas relies on the easy and untrammelled flow of his sentences to create a scene with a steady tempo that is not too demanding. He tends to underline a point by repeating it, sometimes in another form, and is best at the simply described event that both shows and tells what is going on. There is nothing subtle about Barracuda. Here, for example, is a passage that underlines how all-consuming and dangerous is Dan’s failure as a young athlete, which we know from early on will lead to violence that will put him in prison: ‘Dan would never forget that moment,’ we are told, as the whole of Australia watches the opening of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. ‘It was impossible to him just then to conceive of a way to mitigate such loss. He should have been there. He had been holding his future in his clasped hands. Dust. It was all dust.’
This leads into the terrible scene of Dan’s vengeful violence, which is described both from outside, as though we are observing it, and inside Dan’s physical and mental state, as though we are experiencing it. This is why Barracuda is a long-winded novel. Tsiolkas is trying to achieve that double vision. When, right at the end, he goes back to the child and his father, the child and the experience of water, we are prepared for the long and sentimental stream-of-consciousness description that begins like this: ‘The water goes on forever, I have my feet in the sand and I am sinking, the waves are coming in and going out and I am sinking and I laugh because I think that I am going to fall over and Dad says oops you go and he holds me and lifts me up and the sun is close and I put up my hands and I think I can reach it and then Dad swings me again and again and I am flying in the wind and I am scared that he is going to toss me in the water.’
Barracuda would have worked as a what-next narrative, if Tsiolkas had chosen to write his story chronologically. Dan’s trajectory from kid with talent to man with issues has more than enough going for it to keep a reader anticipating. Instead, the story is sliced up, placing us first in the latter stages of the narrative, with Dan living in Glasgow with his boyfriend Clyde, then cutting back to a younger Dan in 1994 and his first day at what he memorably calls Cunts College. The grown-up Dan’s scenes are narrated in the first person, while the boy’s scenes are in the third person, though still from Dan’s point of view. ‘He was better than all of them,’ we hear him think. ‘He was the best. He was the strongest.’
Eventually, in this long book, those two ends of the story loop together, the past catching up with the present. It is signalled by a switch: the child’s story is told, finally, in the first person, the man’s in the third. Tsiolkas doesn’t want us to fall into the river of story and be swept along, but uses these chopping techniques to call our attention to the water itself – contemporary society and Australianness. This is not just a story about Danny the loser, the structure of the novel seems to be saying, but about an angry young Australian man who is betrayed by the society in which he is struggling to stay afloat.
That broadening of scope allows Tsiolkas to include a number of cameo character portraits. These have detail and precision, and show off Tsiolkas the polemicist doing what he does best. For instance, there is a scene at the holiday house belonging to the family of Dan’s friend Martin. The grandmother, who holds the purse strings of this moneyed and snobbish family, is a tyrant used to getting her own way. ‘Have you been to Crete?’ she asks Danny, who hasn’t seen his Greek grandparents since he was six, because they threw his mother out of the house for her refusal to be religious (‘too loud-mouthed … too opinionated, too independent’). But this grandmother, and the man with whom he has a relationship, of sorts, in prison, have to remain if not caricatures then sketches, because the narrative only needs them to make a point.
These characters pose questions that will doubtless spark discussions: is the grandmother right that it’s Australia’s middle class that is weak and untrustworthy? Where does the glib racism of Dan’s prison buddy come from? Why does Dan feel both pride in and revulsion for his country?
The discussions are going to be tougher around sex and its role in relationships. While not as confronting as Tsiolkas’s début novel, Loaded (1995), Barracuda does gay sex graphically. Tsiolkas must know he has earned the right to stretch his Australian story around those realities that some readers might prefer not to read about. Like Colm Tóibín, Tsiolkas challenges taboos about writing gay for straight readers; as with Tóibín, the writing about sex is not so much about moving the story forward or finessing the character’s portrait. Sex in novels is rarely necessary for the narrative itself, but it is so difficult to resist. Tsiolkas manages it with the same straightforward descriptions he adopts for much of the book, but it isn’t delicate either. It is the violence that attracts the most careful treatment, as the writer tries to evoke the terrible eroticism behind a young man’s relaxing his self-control and expressing his anger.
Dan is a fine character, his complexities earning our compassion. While his story is something of a case study about the need to understand how young men, in particular, can become vicious and violent against their essential selves, it is also relevant and moving.