I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the mini-series The Slap–the story of what happens when a man slaps a child at a neighbourhood barbecue. The premise itself didn’t sound that gripping to be honest, but the reality, as the episodes followed the fallout, was riveting. So when Sue (aka Gummie) from Whispering Gums read and reviewed Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Barracuda earlier this year, I knew I wanted to read it. Barracuda is just one of the two nicknames given to Danny Kelly by other young boys on his swimming team. The other nickname, not so pleasant, is Psycho Kelly. Which one is accurate? Answer: well they both are.
Danny Kelly, the son of a Irish/Scottish long distance lorry driver and a glamorous attractive Greek hairdresser mother, comes from an intensely working-class background when he’s poached from his working class school by the swimming coach of “Cunts College” as Danny likes to derisively call it. Cunts College is an elite Melbourne school and with a full scholarship, Danny transfers from his socioeconomic peer group into the school for the “filthy rich.” Just given the basic premise, this is a recipe for disaster.
It was like his two worlds were parts of different jigsaw puzzles. At first, he’d tried to fit the pieces together but he couldn’t do it; it was impossible. So he kept them separate: some pieces belonged on this side of the river, to the wide tree-lined boulevards and avenues of Toorak and Armadale, and some belonged to the flat uniform suburbs in which he lived.
While Danny doesn’t blend in with the boys at his new school, there’s one place he’s can’t be beaten, and that’s in the school’s swimming pool. He’s not at the school long before he feels that “only in the water did he feel like himself. Only in the water did he feel he could escape them.” While other boys have their body hair removed professionally, Danny’s mother uses an old-fashioned razor. While the other boys have “shiny new speedos,” Danny wears cheap trunks. The difference between Danny and the other boys at the school cannot be breached, and even when slight relationships form after Danny’s talent, bravado, and aggression win him a tentative acceptance, these relationships are fraught with tension and class-awareness and everything is held together by Danny’s ability to win at swimming competitions: “he knew that hate was what he would use, what he would remember, what would make him a better swimmer.” This makes for a high stakes situation with an Olympic gold medal as the eventual goal and his ticket to fame and success:
He hated them, he absolutely hated them, the golden boys. He hated their blondness, their insincere smiles, their designer sunglasses, their designer swimmers and their designer sports gear. They made him feel dark and short and dirty. He detested them and he couldn’t wait till he was wearing those sunglasses, till he had those brand names across his sweatshirt
The novel begins with Danny living in Scotland and then goes back to 1994 when Danny first transfers to the posh Melbourne school. The novel concludes in 2012 for a total time span of 18 years and covers significant incidents in Danny’s life–a life in which Danny’s self-loathing coats his actions. This self-loathing is an impenetrable membrane, and it doesn’t matter who believes in Danny–his mother, his coach, his handful of friends, Danny loathes himself so much, that we know the anger summering beneath the surface will eventually explode in the most self-destructive manner possible. Danny’s coach, at one point, tells Danny that he can help him build muscles and improve technique, but that he can’t do anything about what goes on in Danny’s head, and as it turns out, this is Danny’s greatest stumbling block: not other swimmers, not other students at the school. He is his own worst enemy.
That afternoon, when he dived into the pool, that was when he finally spoke. He asked the water to lift him, to carry him, to avenge him. He made his muscles shape his fury, made every kick and stroke declare his hate. And the water obey; the water would give him his revenge. No one could beat him, not one of the pricks came close.
We see Danny make horrendous mistakes. Removed from his socioeconomic peer group, and given this fantastic ‘chance’ to train for Olympic competition there’s an enormous amount of pressure on Danny, and author Christos Tsiolkas conveys that pressure while very cleverly making Danny’s self-loathing the central issue rather than his homosexuality. The book really gets to the heart of class conflict. Danny, in a David Copperfield sort-of-way, is invited to share space with some of the wealthiest people in Melbourne. Danny is made to feel inferior, and he reacts with more self-loathing and shame, but there’s also no small amount of class envy. In one great scene, he’s invited to a dinner party for the matriarch of the Taylors, a wealthy family whose members fall over themselves to pay homage to the Grande Dame who holds the family purse strings.
The old woman whispered, “Come closer.”
Danny lowered his head.
“I’ve always admired the working class, my dear, always. Like us, you know exactly who you are. But look at them.” She waved a hand dismissively at the others at the table. “They have no idea how abysmal they are. Lord, how I detest the middle class.”
Danny looked into her bright shining eyes and knew he had just been given a gift, but he didn’t know how to unwrap it, could not figure out how to accept it. The old woman shrugged and rose from her chair, dropping her napkin onto the table.
Mrs. Taylor looked up. “Mother,” she blurted out, “you mustn’t smoke.”
“Oh, fuck off, Samantha,” the old woman replied as she followed her son out to the courtyard.
Danny’s self loathing is so destructive that he lashes out at everyone who tries to help him, and there are times when Tsiolkas risks, alienating his readers from this character. He’s angry, unpleasant and yet we realize that there’s a brittle ego underneath. A deadly combination as it turns out. I found myself trying to reason with Danny at several points, but of course Danny has to hit rock bottom before he can turn his life around. On one level, the book argues well that talent and skill are not the only elements to make a champion, but there’s a bigger picture here, and that’s taking responsibility for your actions:
You construct a ladder and you climb that ladder, out of the hell you have created for yourself and back into the real world.