Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe (2018) deserves all the accolades that have been heaped on it. It’s a well written work, though not without its flaws, the story of a boy growing up surrounded by drugs and alcoholism and poverty in the working class outer suburbs of Brisbane; a fictionalising of his own life according to the author.

The style of the work is grunge, which I like, though the atmosphere is an uneasy mix of YA, druggy life and action adventure, with a very small amount of unlikely romance as icing on the cake.

In an interview a couple of years ago, Dalton said that he has been a journalist, for News Ltd – Murdoch owns all the newspapers in Brisbane – for 17 years, so maybe he was born in the early 1980s (Wiki doesn’t say). Eli, his protagonist, remembers as a twelve year old watching Dean Jones on TV in a (cricket) match against Pakistan, so that would be the One Day International series of 1992-3. By Pakistan’s visit for the 1995-96 Test series the NSW mafia had Dean Jones out of the side. So what do we make of the sentence (on p.4) which begins “Thirty-two years ago, in February 1953 ..”? That would put Eli’s birth year back a whole decade.

It certainly feels more like a 1980s story than a 1990s story, though I’m not up on the history of heroin in Australia, nor of Vietnamese involvement in its trade. Either way Dalton is too young to remember the end of the corrupt Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland in 1987, the jailing of the Police Commissioner, and the rank and file police sabotaging any attempts at reform – well, he’d remember the last because they’re still at it. Though there is passing mention of police patronising illegal brothels, which is very 1980s.

Boy Swallows Universe is a novel unsure of its genre. Eli is 12 at the beginning, just starting high school, and at the end he’s 19 and employed at the Courier Mail (Brisbane’s only daily newspaper) as a cadet journalist. So that makes it a bildungsroman right? But the years in between barely exist and to be honest Eli at 19 and Eli at 12 don’t seem that different. They are both hard-swearing boys who cry in a crisis (and maybe wet themselves). And they both want the same woman, the twenty-something crime journalist Caitlyn Spies.

The writing is at times sublime – lyrical, hard, tough. Australian grunge.

I can see my brother, August, through the crack in the windscreen. He sits on our brown brick fence writing his life story in fluid cursive with his right forefinger, etching words into thin air.
Boy writes on air.
Boy writes on air the way my old neighbour Gene Crimmins says Mozart played piano. like every word was meant to arrive, parcel packed and shipped from a place beyond his own busy mind.

August, a year older, chooses not to speak. A silence dating from years before when their father, Robert, drove his car into a dam and left August and Eli to drown. August talks to Eli with ‘looks’, perfectly understood, and his moving finger.

Grunge is hard to define, but it involves don’t you think a life lived on the edge of society, drugs and poverty, described with the rhythms of Beat poetry or Rock’n’Roll. Eli’s mother and her partner, Lyle, in Lyle’s dead Polish immigrant parents’ house in Brisbane’s outer western industrial suburbs, deal and do drugs, heroin, sourced through local Vietnamese families. Eli is involved. Involved because he’s found their stash, “a five-hundred-gram brick of Golden Triangle heroin stowed in the mower catcher in our backyard shed”, involved because he thinks Lyle is not doing a good enough job and forces Lyle to take him with him, involved because he is desperate to rescue his mother, involved because he knows the Vietnamese, goes to school with their son.

But Eli is above. He’s a hero, not a grunge anti-hero. A lot of this novel is straight YA. Lyle is disappeared. The mother is jailed and falls into depression, something else to rescue her from. Eli and August must go to their father in another shabby house on the diagonally opposite side of Brisbane. And he must be rescued from alcoholism. And the ending is all Matthew Reilly (don’t ever read Matthew Reilly) unrealistic action adventure stunts as Eli and Caitlyn rescue Brisbane from a mass murderer.

And Caitlyn points her faulty camera at Iwan Krol’s face and clicks a blinding flash. The predator turns his head, momentarily stunned, still recalibrating his eyesight as the axe that is now in my hands takes an achingly long arcing journey towards his body.

Trent Dalton can write. Perhaps his next book, which I see is all over booksellers’ shelves, is not so bursting with all the ideas he bottled up while writing crap for Rupert Murdoch. I’m not sure I’ll buy it but I hope someone tries it, doesn’t like it, then passes it on again, which is how I got this one.

.

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2018. 471pp.

see also:
Kate W/booksaremyfavouriteandbest’s very enthusiastic review (here) and she has #2, All Our Shimmering Skies very near the top of her TBR.

40 thoughts on “Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton

    • LOL. I have read it, and can’t remember it. All I remember is thinking that it was OK, but not being sure what all the fuss was about.

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    • I never see sales figures, but his publisher certainly put a lot of effort into getting it ‘out there’. And his latest too, from the few times I’ve been in bookshops (not just iso this week, but Lockdown). [I hope this time it’s indented under the right comment]

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  1. And I have read some Matthew Rileys, but a long time ago, when my middle daughter was enamoured of them. One wasn’t too bad. The rest were very ordinary. So if you haven’t started, obey Bill’s request, and don’t!

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    • I’ll listen to almost anything in the truck, but action thrillers are the worst. There’s no logic to them. The bullet hits or the bullet misses at the author’s whim. The Reilly I remember involved special forces in Antarctica swimming underwater in their uniforms to evade capture. Just nonsense!

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  2. Well, if I’d bought or been sent the latest Dalton I’d happily send it on to you, but alas, you know about me and grunge already, and so do the publishers who send me books, so you’ll have to hope you get one from elsewhere.
    Or…
    If you are very good, I will buy you a copy for your birthday since you’re not going to Paris.

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      • We’re a big family. Rottnest suits us. And in fact the Rottnest weekend is really to allow us to celebrate my daughter’s wedding. I’ll probably have a joint birthday party at Clancy’s pub in Freo sometime in the week preceding. (a 70th, a 60th, a 43rd, and an 89th all within a few days of each other)

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  3. I agree, it’s not a perfect book but, once I was stuck into it, I forgave all faults – it’s captivating. I do have the next one, hovering near the top of my TBR stack – my expectations are enormous.

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    • I’ve added a link to your review at the end of my post, how could I not! You suggested in Comments that I get an audiobook copy. I’ll have to check my Audible library, but I think I have, which will make 3 books at least that I’ve paid Audible for and read elsewhere.
      I know #2 is getting lots of shelf space, but beware of second book disappointment.

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  4. B4 wrote, on Facebook: I just finished reading this one. It took me a long time to get into it and I was disappointed with the typical Murdoch press characterisation of migrants and indigenous as the bad guys and I thought the boys own adventure ending was pretty much pure Enid Blyton. I won’t be hurrying to buy his next book.

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  5. I don’t often abandon books but I abandoned this one. Mind you, I was a bit distracted at the time as it was the book I tried to read on the plane from the UK en route to Perth when I repatriated. There was something about the prose style that didn’t work for me at the time; it felt overwritten. I’ve often thought about giving it a second go, but there are too many other books vying for my attention.

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    • You have to get into the rhythm of his writing and I guess sometimes you just don’t. You might have found the second half interesting, where he was a cadet with the Courier Mail in their giant newsroom. I was a cadet in the same building, but in a much smaller room providing copy for country newspapers.

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    • I grew up in Melbourne, was in Brisbane for a while in the 70s – when the Valley was rougher than Kings Cross – and as recently as 3 years ago was working out of a depot in Richlands. Sometimes when an author gets a suburb right, it feels like he’s writing bits of your life

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  6. I think I’m feeling a bit sensitive about the narrative of child saving the parent because my current audiobook is about a monster of a man who has walled his wife in daughter in on a compound in remote Alaska, and the daughter won’t leave because she has to save her mother, basically from herself. It makes me so angry. The more I listen to the audiobook (and this feeling came up again as I read your review), the more I think that I am not willing to sacrifice myself for a parent who obstinately refuses to survive at the expense of my own life. Now, if the parent were TRYING to survive as well, and willing to take action, that would be a different story.

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    • I didn’t say so above, but the mother here gets into an abusive relationship (with a truck driver!) which she goes back to after her son rescues her from a beating. Very distressing but may well reflect the facts of Dalton’s life.

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      • My audiobook is 15 hours long. I’m 75% and still mad. So mad. And not only is the dad violent, but so much other crap is going on, too. It’s Alaska, the one place that sounds scarier than Australia! Okay, but I must confess, the more I talk to Australian bloggers and the more I read Australian fiction, the less scary it seems.

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      • I think you are right, we do mainly only disagree at the margins.

        Your comment that “Basically, I think the fact that he covers so many genres is not “genre-bending”, but a failure by the author to keep his work on a single course” has legs, I suppose – and could be partly due to the challenge of being a debut novelist! Though it is also a matter of perspective about what the course was and what style of writing it needed. It’s a bit too long ago for me to be more erudite on that now!

        I agree about Eli the action-hero, which was my main beef with the novel, though I expressed it differently.

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      • Yesterday another guy in Queensland escaped fromma crocodile (what idiots swim in North Qld rivers?) and a child was woken by being bitten on the feet by a king brown snake. But that’s ok, you can have your illusions.

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  7. Not sleeping so catching up on blog reading. Wasn’t sure whether you’d like this or not, Bill, but I’m so glad you did.I thoroughly enjoyed it too though as I think I said in my post, I agree with B4 about the boys’ own adventure ending. That did spoil it a bit, but as a first novel it is so fresh, and real, and compassionate. Grunge, yes, I suppose it is, though somehow it feels “bigger” than grunge in conception. I like your description “it involves don’t you think a life lived on the edge of society, drugs and poverty, described with the rhythms of Beat poetry or Rock’n’Roll”, but I think there’s ALSO something hopeless about grunge, something resigned or worn down, that you don’t get here where there is a real sense of striving to rise above it, a sense of positive energy. Does this make sense?

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    • I agree with you about the ‘hopeless’ bit. Eli is a hero especially towards the end, rather than an anti-hero. And it is probably in his desperation for a ‘good’ ending that Dalton most mixes his genres. I’m not sure he cares though. I think his first and overall objective was to say Hey Look I rescued my Mum and she’s normal now.

      We know too (from the interview cited) that he has at least one daughter, so the stuff about Caitlyn Spies was probably some sort of inside joke with his wife.

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      • Woo hoo, we agree on something! Actually, we agree on a few things, don’t we. And, re genre, we could say, as with my realism/modernism discussion, that writers just write what they want. It’s for readers and critics to fuss about genre?

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      • I think we only ever disagree at the margins. I’ve just read your review, which is a bit more positive than mine, and I see I didn’t comment. Perhaps I didn’t know what to say a year ago either. Basically, I think the fact that he covers so many genres is not “genre-bending”, but a failure by the author to keep his work on a single course. He tries to do too much and it ends up a bit of a dogs breakfast.
        The style of writing Dalton’s chosen takes a lot of work and he does it very well – perhaps that’s why Eli has to write colour pieces, because he can’t do straight, factual journalistic writing like Kylie Tennant for example. It fits well with the gritty descriptions of druggy life. But it does not work so well for Eli the YA action hero.

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  8. I liked the book Bill. I think as a Brisbanite I related to a lot of it even if, as you say, it was flawed. Some of the writing was outstanding. I reviewed this on GR and have just read back what I wrote. “realistic grittiness” “a strangely seductive amalgam of family history, fantasy and observation of his childhood” “My home suburb gets a mention with both Moorooka and its Magic Mile of Motors” I was by Darra Railway Station not 6 months back, and it still had a Vietnamese restaurant nearby. I wrote “The owner, Eli observes, has an opinion as to why Australians wallow in inherent misery. Their childhood is so “idyllic and joyous” with the beach, backyard cricket and never ending sunshine that anything beyond that can never match. Hence “junk cures all misery”. So true IMO. I wrote that the book was “Strangely good fun to read and recommended to Brisbaneites from both sides of the river.”

    I liked it a lot. Will I read him again? Maybe but I have so many unread books on the shelf I will not go out of my way.

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    • I said above, that’s great when an author gets your hometown right.
      Lots of Australians I think, never get past that beach and backyard cricket thing, perhaps they stay happy and don’t need drugs, well no more alcohol than the rest of us.
      Dalton grew up in the northern suburbs but I think his evocation of the industrial and housing commission suburbs west of Rocklea (in the south, towards Ipswich for non-Brisbaneites) is better, but then, I know them better.
      What happens if the new one is more fictionalised memoir? You’ll have to read it.

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    • And it’s good to see you here. We all have different tastes (and randomly pick up different books) and by reading each other we get a much better idea of what is out there. And I for one learn a little bit more each week about the art of reading from all our different reviews.

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  9. Strangely, Boy Swallows Universe isn’t the sort of thing I’d expect you to read. I don’t know why. The cover? The age of the protagonist? The fact that it seems a bit…modern-hype and that’s just not what I expect from your blog. But you’re constantly surprising me in great ways, Bill. Keep it up!

    I wonder if I’d finish this book. Sublime writing often will enrapture me (and that quote certainly does!), but a character that doesn’t change much throughout the story… Particularly because 2020 has left me craving positivity and redemption arcs. Grunge doesn’t really lend itself to that, does it?

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    • I was warned when I was given the book that the age of the protagonist might be a problem, but throughout, Eli seems very knowing, 12 going on 25. I suspect that Dalton thought a lot about the style of writing he was going to use and chose grunge because it suited the drug-world that a lot of the novel is situated in. Though it is very ill-matched to the action ending.

      And I think that because Eli starts out so knowing there is no room left for him to develop. If there is any development it is in Eli’s family, as his father and mother claw their way out of the messes they have made of their lives, and Eli is clearly the driver in that.

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  10. it’s interesting to read the varied responses to his work here and in the comments. I’m not sure what to think. The quotation piques my interest, but I can’t quite decide whether to admire or sneer at a phrase like this: “an achingly long arcing journey”…I feel like it could go either way, just depending on my mood in a given moment. Which is why I always have so many books on the go at once, because I am a moody reader! 🙂

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    • I don’t think of myself as reading more than one book at a time, but I do I guess. I get through an audiobook a day while I’m driving and I’ll always have one paper book on the go, and at the moment I have Such is Life as well, and Mr Flea on my kindle so that makes four. What I think about when I pick up a book is rarely what I’d like to read (that might be all SF and Georgette Heyer) but rather the shape or balance of my blog. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy what I read. I clearly do.

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      • Bill, I think you should read (or listen to) what you want, and let the blog shape itself. And if it ends up full of SF, so be it. Mind you, though I have my favourite flavours, I find that after a binge I want something different. And I’m a capricious reader anyway, so my reading gets spread around. (I’ve even read one of the longlist for the Stella – am I restored in your estimation?) And you might be the same.

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      • I hear you Neil, but I like my blog and I’ve always enjoyed studying so it suits me to have projects on the go and for readers not to be too surprised at the subjects I write about.
        In the beginning I avoided SF not because of my readers but because there are specialists out there who are far better read than I am, and that is still probably true.

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      • LOL. And you wonder why more people don’t leave comments!? Maybe they suffer from the same concern – there are specialists who can leave comments (which is not them). I must admit I felt a bit this way when I wrote my “Timeless Land” review, almost everyone seemed to know much more about Eleanor Dark or the literature of the time than I did. But the beauty of a blog is that it’s yours, so you can do what you want. And you allow comments, so the experts can chime in should they wish.

        Regardless of the experts, I enjoy reading your reviews (and your journals). So keep on keeping on, and I shall keep cheering loudly from the sidelines.

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