It’s a tricky thing, success. How do you write a book to follow your own breakout novel, a title that leapt off shelves and became a phenomenon? That’s a good problem to have, but a challenge nonetheless.
It was the challenge for Christos Tsiolkas after his fourth book, The Slap. It came out in 2008 (2010 in the U.S.), a doorstopper of a novel that told of the fallout from a backyard barbecue where a man slaps someone else’s child. Winning critical acclaim, it sold 1.2 million copies worldwide and made the author a household name in his own country, Australia. Asked if he saw that coming, Tsiolkas has said, “Fuck no…I’d have been happy if it had been 10,000 copies.”
Tsiolkas’s answer to his quandary was to confront the potential for failure head-on. He did that by making it the theme of his fifth and latest novel. Thus we get Barracuda, released this month in the U.S. It’s the story of Danny Kelly, the son of working class Scots-Irish and Greek parents and a promising swimmer at a public school in Melbourne. His talent gets him a free ride at a school he dubs “Cunts College” (it’s all prefects, grand stone buildings, and kids from leafy suburbs). And his talent could take him much further, to golden boy status and the Olympic Games. Except things don’t go according to plan, and failure in the pool is only the beginning of a spectacular fall from grace.
This is a truly fine novel, for reasons I’ll come to shortly. It’s also a great page-turner, drawing a reader in as it alternates between the schoolboy Danny and his older self, an ex-con who lives with the shame of unspeakable past acts. Older Danny (now “Dan”) doesn’t like to swim; he won’t even tell his lover, a Glaswegian named Clyde, that he was a swimmer once. Exactly what has happened Tsiolkas withholds, although he scatters clues like crumbs: “How the very word — swimmer — could lacerate, could remind him of how far he had fallen.”
Young Danny trains like mad and asserts himself by winning. He becomes inseparable from Martin, his waspy rival-come-friend. After winning at nationals (in the under-16s freestyle), he gets a standing ovation from the same schoolboys who initially despised him. Then it’s on to victory in the men’s butterfly. Next up, it’s the Pan Pacific Games in Fukuoka, Japan. Danny is there revealed as an Icarus figure: unaware of his own hubris, he crashes and burns. Later he sinks to the savage act that is the fulcrum of the story and only afterward perceives that his task is to become — quoting David Copperfield, a novel he reads in prison — “the hero of my own life”.
Tsiolkas has crafted a faultless voice for Danny. It’s tersely unpretentious but not without flights of beauty. This makes for taut, sensuous prose, as when Danny disregards his coach’s advice to focus on butterfly, not freestyle: “He knew he could conquer both strokes, it was inside him, it was a revelation written inside him, inked over his muscles, imprinted in his brain, etched into his soul.”
Where The Slap had an ensemble cast and Tolstoy-esque ambitions — it sought to render the whole milieu of the multiethnic, suburban Melbourne that is Tsiolkas’s heartland — Barracuda trains its sights firmly on Danny Kelly. Even so, all the characters are vividly drawn. Especially so Danny’s parents, the rockabilly hairdresser mother who shaves her son’s body hair and the truck-driver father with a social conscience. (“This fucking country,” he says. “There’s no money for health and education, nothing for the arts, but we shovel a shitload to sports.”) The set pieces sparkle with a dangerous brilliance: the weekend at Martin’s Portsea beach house where Danny faces off against a tyrannous, rich grandmother; the opening night of the Sydney Olympics when he tries to avoid the broadcast and the jingoistic hype but ends up glued to the window of a television store.
It’s worth mentioning the sex as there’s a fair dose in the book — Danny’s awakening in prison, then his relationship with Clyde. This is nothing new for Tsiolkas; a passage of Dead Europe, his third novel, was once shortlisted for The Guardian’s bad sex award. Actually, in Barracuda, the sex is worlds better than it was in The Slap, which had a racy tone that at times felt almost lewd, rather like the pervy bits in a Jonathan Franzen novel. (To give an example, Aisha’s dalliance at a conference abroad was as confected as anything in a bodice-ripper.) Barracuda feels truer and, well, tenderer, even when Danny philosophizes on “getting fucked up the arse.” Witness his description of his lover’s skin as being like “the tint of the last days of a leaf in autumn, the dark of ground just touched by rain.”
In the end, it’s not sex but class that gives Danny the greater trouble. Sexuality matters here, but Tsiolkas doesn’t spell out how. That he largely leaves aside questions of coming out is a mark of self-assurance in how he tells this story (he has said that in writing Barracuda he was coming to terms with his own class treachery). This confidence and ease is evident everywhere in the novel; Tsiolkas does not over-explain. We might or might not know that the “stinky TWU t-shirt” worn by Danny’s dad marks him as a member of the transport workers’ union. It might or might not register that the extravagant birthday gift for Martin’s grandmother is a painting by Joy Hester, an Australian modernist. It won’t matter because we feel we know these people.
Of course, Tsiolkas has made this book intensely Australian. The fact that he puts Danny at the Pan Pacifics — the games that mark the peak of his swimming career — brings to mind those different Pan Pacifics once conjured by Baz Luhrmann, in his first film, Strictly Ballroom (1992). There, the sport was ballroom dancing and working class Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) shook things up by dancing the pasodoble with a girl from a Spanish family. Tsiolkas’s Pan Pacific reference could be a nod to Luhrmann or it could be no such thing, but, like the film, Barracuda combines sharp social portraiture with that rare ingredient, a story that speaks to the human condition.
In writing this review, I read the book a second time. I had first read it at Christmas, tearing through it in two days; the novel came out late last year in Australia. Precisely because it is so gripping, it is possible on first reading not to notice just how skillful it is, how intricate the plot and the successive revelations, how deft the handling of point of view and tense.
I am glad I read it again and noticed all these things and more. The experience convinced me of what I had felt initially: this is not only Tsiolkas’s best novel so far, it is the work of a writer at the top of his game. That’s no small success for a book about failure.