Friday, November 1, 2013

Christos Tsiolkas' Brilliant Barracuda.

Barracuda is not as absorbing a read or as sprawling a story as The Slap. It's more focused and limited in scope. Yet it has much the same power - all the dramatic intensity that brings everyday suburban Australia alive. Few authors have Tsiolkas' ability to so vividly convey the messy, untidy reality of people colliding emotionally, psychologically and intellectually.

On the strength of his swimming ability young Danny Kelly has won a scholarship to one of Melbourne's elite private schools - 'Cunts College'. He comes up against a poncy, bullying culture and it makes him one angry lad. He's working class and a wog.. 'They made him feel dark and short and dirty'. Meet the class society in so-called egalitarian Australia.

Danny is ferociously, even pathologically, competitive and he's slowly turning into a sad, mean-spirited prick as well. There's something close to evil in him.

After his swimming career ignominiously collapses he turns into a bitter and twisted mongrel, a bully himself. His schoolmates call him 'Psycho Kelly', a 'cry-baby'. He felt 'slovenly'; he felt 'shame'. And he's full of self pity. He knocks back the opportunity the school and his parents give him to repeat year 12; he knocks back his former coach's offer to resurrect his swimming career. The coach still believed in him.

He's a deeply emotionally limited young man who comes to blame his father for his failures. But his family is actually loving and supportive, and his father grounded and wise. Danny's your complete loser. 'He'd HAD a future...he'd fucked it up'. Eventually he comes to hate Australia's whole sporting culture, particularly its bogan manifestation: 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi'. The broadcast of the Sydney Olympic Opening Ceremony sends him screaming from the pub.

Tsiolkas serves up multiple set pieces and confrontations, all dramatic but they register the social experience of Australia perfectly. His characters are nothing if not intensely and recognisably real.

I think the anti Australian thing is overcooked though. He works a bit too hard to present the working class as real and the middle class as fake, selfish and up itself.

Part Two of the novel moves into Danny's adult life. He's now 'Dan'. We explore family, friends, lovers, gay sex, religion, identity, literature and, repeatedly, his intense shame for his failures and lack of achievement. It's an ever richer tapestry as he moves beyond his narrow upbringing and grows up. He reaches out and makes peace with his family and friends. He even reaches out to his old school 'friend' and swimming buddy Martin who, for good reason, ignores him.

Finally he achieves a real measure of peace. His demons are gone.

There is one dimension to this novel that bothered and annoyed me. Tsiolkas sets up a constant contrast between Danny's hyper dramatic inner turmoil and his polite, sober articulation of his thoughts to his family and friends. Like Danny, so many characters have 'rage inside'. This rage becomes a mantra and eventually empties of all meaning. 'He could crush him if he wanted to'. What's with these violent inner thoughts all the time? It's High Romanticism, verging on the melodramatic, and it's tiresome. All the so-called rage is unresolved. At one point Danny spews bile all over his father - 'you failed me dad' - but then suddenly makes cooing, apologetic noises as he quickly cools down. 

The over-dramatisation will annoy quite a few readers of more Anglo sensibility I think. Personally I can only take so much hyped up, Latin emotion.

I'm tempted to summarise the novel thus: 'Danny Kelly comes from an immigrant family - mother Greek; father Scots/Irish- where passions and working class resentments are ratcheted up to 11 out of 10. Unsurprisingly, it makes the boy'. 

That's of course being unfair. I think.

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