Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel, is the last of my Australian fiction reading over the holidays. It tells the story of Danny Kelly, working class boy from Reservoir in Melbourne who wins a scholarship to a private Eastern suburbs school on the back of his prodigious swimming ability. Its the mid nineties, and Danny, who has a long haul truck driving father and a Greek hairdressing mother, doesn’t fit in amongst the wealth and privilege of his new school friends.
But in the pool, where Danny becomes the water, all that matters is being the strongest and the best. Danny wants to be a world famous swimmer, with all the fame and money that goes with it. He sets his sights on the Sydney Olympics in 2000, helped along by Coach, a man whose first piece of advice to Danny is ‘always answer back when you receive an insult’. Its a tactic that Danny takes to heart and one that will be his undoing.
When he fails at his first international swimming event and disgraces himself because he doesn’t have the means to handle failure, his downward slide begins. We know from the first chapter that Danny has spent time in prison but its an agonising trip to the middle of the story before we learn why. The scenes where the wounded Danny lashes out at his Coach, the other boys and his family, are heartbreaking for how badly he behaves and how much they show is inability to manage his anger.
Barracuda has a complicated structure, flitting between his school days in the mid nineties, told in close third person POV, Scotland in the present day (first person), working as a shelf-stacker in Melbourne post school (third person), working in community services with special needs people (first person), and some scenes in prison.
The first person sections let us see how limited and unworldly are Danny’s ideas of success and what they will mean. The third person reflections as he grows up are more realistic and the shame he feels over his failure are brutally felt. There’s a great series of scenes late in the story where Danny meets his cousin Dennis in Adelaide. Dennis has been injured in a motorbike accident and can’t speak properly but Danny forms a real connection with him, and the two men help each other to see differently and reach out to their families.
What I enjoyed most about Tsiolkas’ huge hit The Slap was his insightful reflections on modern Australian life. Those insights are also what make Barracuda such a wonderful story. Its densely packed with questions on the nature of our attitude to sporting success and how we shun failure, and the issue of class. He explores what it means to be working class, and what happens when the young educated children of working class parents transcend their upbringing and cross over into the middle class. He also nails the idea that the children of the working class have no sense of entitlement and will always feel guilty about their success and that this is something his rich classmates at school could never understand. Its clear Tsiolkas firmly believes that Australia is a class-ridden society, no matter how much we argue that it isn’t. I think he’s right, though it’s a money-based class and not something that has been the same in the past. He also touches on the self-indulgence of Australians, our so-called ‘first world problems’.
Tsiolkas also tackles what ‘home’ means and how ex-patriates navigate their lives in other places, and think about what home means from far away. When one of Danny’s old friends talks to him about why his life in China is so wonderful, Danny realises that his friend is trying to justify his move away from Australia to himself, and Danny knows its time to go home. These reflections on home and what it means really resonated with me. And as you would expect in a Tsiolkas story, there’s also plenty of sex, of the gay variety, and lots of visceral thoughts about bodies and how people can be repulsed by themselves.
I really enjoyed reading this story, not just because of its exploration of success and failure, but for all of its profound reflections on modern Australian life.