Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

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.

BarracudaDanny 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.

Review copy.

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31 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Tsiolkas Christos

31 responses to “Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

  1. Interesting review. I have just started this novel (also after a chat with whispering gums). This book kept coming up in my bookish rounds and I expect a challenge – you can sense a complex character from the early pages. Sometimes I think there is a tendency not to let characters hit rock bottom and as a result any self recognition/ redemption fails to ring true.

    My real motivation is the opportunity to see Tsiolkas take part in a one-to-one interview at our local lit festival in a few weeks and in this case I wanted to be able to hear him talk about this book having already read it in advance. I will have to update when book and presentation are behind me.

    • The author lets his character hit rock bottom, and then he has to work his way out of this situation. He was, I think, a very believable character, and I liked the way the author used the scholarship, the “opportunity” of a lifetime to damage Danny. That’s a bold move.
      How wonderful to be able to hear this author speak. Bet he’ll be good.

  2. Wow, this sounds amazing. I can see it on our book club list. Another one on the pile!

    • Danny isn’t a pleasant character although by the end of the novel you can only cheer for him. I liked the way the author didn’t make Danny’s homosexuality an issue to be grappled with and neither did the author fall into the “Rocky” pitfall. This was all about Danny’s personal struggle which took him 18 years to work out.

  3. Glad you seem to have liked it Guy. It’s a book that’s easy to be offended by – as many of Tsiolkas’ books are – but he explores the inner conflicts and the social stresses so rawly, demonstrating what a complex mix it can be. I loved your comment that you found yourself arguing with Danny!

    • Danny was only 14 when he was transferred to that school, and it really was a bad move instead of the wonderful opportunity it was supposed to be.

      • Yes … and Tsiolkas shows that so beautifully doesn’t he. I loved how he showed Danny feeling uncomfortable with/embarrassed by his family. As I wrote in my review, I felt that the book ultimately was about what makes a good man.

  4. Tsiolkas is a very cinematic writer (as Slap proved) and I think that contributes to the way that he made Danny a realistic character. I did find the school and swimming parts more convincing but you hit the nail on the head when saying that “self-loathing” is the one constant that he carries through life. I would not be surprised to see this one show up as a television mini-series as well.

    • I wondered how Danny would have turned out if he hadn’t gone to that school. I thought Danny’s final evaluation of his dad rang a false note–esp given how he’d thought of him earlier.

      • What do you mean Guy? I’m trying to remember, but from memory I thought that his later assessment was that of a man versus his earlier one as a boy? But it’s a while since I read it.

        • Yes you are correct (from my memory too) his assessment alters. I found it a bit of a convenient catharsis. Not that Danny wasn’t ready for one–he was.

          • Did you? I should go back and check but my recollection is that he led up to it with Danny’s ponderings about men. I think that many young people are hard on their parents and do suddenly realise this. My sense is that if their anger has been strong the change can be just as strong. I think also that this doesn’t necessarily mean he agrees with all his father does but that he realises his father has integrity.

            • You have a point when you say “their anger has been strong the change can be just as strong.” Danny’s rage towards his father was horrendous. Wasn’t there a point when he actually indulged a thought about anal raping his father or am I wrong? Anyway.. the rage against his father was just another version of that self loathing. I think strange things happen when you pluck someone out of their socioeconomic environment and have them mingle with a peer group that is vastly more privileged.

              • Thanks Guy … I don’t remember that which is not to say it’s not there but it has been 6 months or so. And yes, I agree that you can cause serious disconnects when you make that shift. I guess it’s the sort of thing refugees face all the time, with varying success depending on their Ian mindset, their support networks and how the new community relates to them.

                • “Own” not “Ian” …. Where did iOS 8 get that from?

                  • Yes I found it at about the 88% mark in the kindle. Danny’s dad throws an apple at him and then is bending over cleaning up the mess when Danny realizes that he could have raped his father. This was a very extreme point and one I think that really tipped my sympathy for the character.
                    At other points he knows he capable of killing his brother (his rage is so great) and acknowledges the desire to rip the skin off of the girlfriend of a boy from school. Such rage-well he learns to control it, but it’s still there, and that’s why I questioned the catharsis. Danny was so full of self-loathing, it made sense that he eventually self-destructs, but he is very very damaged. Even the sex he has seems masochistic.

                    • Ah yes, I do remember that now Guy … Tsiolkas is very confronting and gets to people’s darkest thoughts and feelings. There are times when he shocks me pretty much to my core but the point here, as you say, is that Danny didn’t act upon that thought. I felt we were always able to see his humanity and pain – but Tsiolkas does risk alienating his readers, doesn’t he.

                      BTW, I’m inclined to feel that the stronger the rage/emotion, the stronger the catharsis?

  5. Thinking about his previous book, I really admired the way this author used the slap incident to open up and plumb the depths of the fault lines in relationships between friends and family members. He exerted great control over that narrative, and I recall my perceptions of one of the pivotal characters flipped completely about two-thirds of the way through. This sounds like another good one. Great review.

  6. Alienating readers from a main character is an interesting concept. I think that it it often, but not always the sign of a good writer. With that said, I myself sometimes have trouble getting past it.

  7. Yes Gummie: I’ll concede that. More to regret. More to feel guilty about.

  8. Not about Tsiolkas, but every time you come across another Australian writer I mean to mention the terrific Anthony O’Neill (published in the US as Cornelius Kane). It’s my personal mission to make him better known and I can’t understand why he isn’t. He’s written 4 very different books, but one I think you’d like, as a crime afficionado, is ‘The Unscratchables” a clever, funny but genuinely scary crime thriller with a cast of cats and dogs.

  9. I need to read The Slap as well. I didn’t know it was made into a mini-series. But this sounds good too.

  10. My feeling with Tsiolkas is always that I’ll wait to see what promises to be a great tv series, but I’m somehow never tempted by them as books.

  11. Great review – and I’ll be reading The Slap as well (only read extracts of it before). The author said that his personal favourite amongst his books is Dead Europe, although it’s not had great reviews. I think I may be in the market for that one too…

    • I watched both the American and the Aussie versions of the Slap. While I preferred the Aussie version it was interesting to watch both and see the differences the American version placed on the drama.

      Not heard of Dead Europe…

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