Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda (2013) is not a novel about swimming, as seems to be everyone’s first impression, so much as a novel where swimming, being a swimmer, is a way in to discussing Melbourne’s secret shame – class.

However, swimming, getting to world class, takes up a fair amount of space, which is interesting as I have seen nothing to indicate Tsiolkas was a competitive swimmer. Tsiolkas (1965- ) was a student at Blackburn High (in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs) where two of my kids went (I went to Blackburn South High) and if he swam would have been a member of my old club, Nunawading and maybe have been coached by my former teammate and coach, Leigh Nugent.

In fact some of the things Tsiolkas says about swimming – ‘touching the wall’, losing track of the line on the bottom of the pool, thinking (my head did almost nothing but count laps (and complain about oxygen deprivation) when I swam) – make me wonder if he just “imagined himself” into his protagonist, Danny.

Danny is the oldest son of working class parents – Scottish-Australian interstate truck driver father and Greek-Australian mother – living in Reservoir, a northern suburb of working class Anglos and new migrants; streets of small, identical three bedroom brick and tile houses put up by the Housing Commission in the 1950s and 60s.

The guts of the novel is that, based on his swimming, he wins a scholarship to attend one of the big Private boys schools, probably based on Scotch College going by the coloured blazer and the location on the river.

The first piece of advice the Coach ever gave Danny was not about swimming, not about his strokes, not about his breathing, not about how he could improve his dive or his turns. All of that would come later. He would never forget that first piece of advice.

The squad had just finished training and Danny was standing shivering off to one side. The other guys all knew each other; they had been destined to be friends from the time they were embryos in their mothers’ wombs, when their fathers had entered their names on the list to attend Cunts College.

First week of term, February 1994

The advice? “You are not friends, you are competitors.” Don’t take shit from them. Give it back. Hurt them before they hurt you.

At school he is teased and ostracized, but over the years makes his way in to the in-crowd via his victories in swimming and his ‘psycho’ response to being provoked. Scotch is the school rich Presbyterians send their sons to. Fathers are judges, politicians, leaders in business and medicine. Mothers are society ladies, big on committees and entertaining.

Most middle Australians live in a fantasy “classless” society, unaware of the 10% above them pulling all the levers, keeping apart, speaking in mock British accents (and yes, I had one for a while, at Trinity); dismissive of ‘bogans’, tradespeople who work harder and often earn more than they do; and completely blind to the plight of the underclass of generationally welfare dependent.

Danny finds himself in a school for boys training to be bosses, whose parents are the bosses the rest of us work for, where arrogance is a given and self-doubt is rare. Of course Australians cut sporting heroes a lot of slack, and so there is a path for him to achieve acceptance.

The storyline chops about, beginning with Danny, 30ish, ex-swimmer, ex-con it turns out, in Glasgow, his relationship with his lover coming to an end; and making its way through all the episodes in his life that brought him to this point. It works well.

We see Danny, as a swimmer, quickly the best swimmer in his squad, rise through states, nationals, Pan-Pacs; we see him floundering in the social side of school life, with his mates, his mates’ mothers and sisters; a scholarship boy in the upper class suburbs of Toorak and Portsea; But more interesting are the family dynamics, his ongoing friendship with Demet, a Turkish-Australian girl from his old life, his sense of entitlement at home, his father’s resentment, his mother’s conciliating.

This is a big book, over 500 pages, and although Melbourne and class, and I guess competitive swimming are the glue which hold it together, it is the relationships which make it compelling – with Martin, at different times his biggest tormentor and best friend; with Demet; with Luke, his unlikely swottish schoolfriend; with his brother and sister; his parents of course (his father seems to get rather more days at home than the one day a week allowed most long distance drivers); with his mother’s Adelaide-based family, introduced late in the book; with his lovers.

Tsiolkas still writes with his dick too often for my taste, seems compelled to put his protagonists’ sex lives in your face, but it’s not happening all the time here, which is a relief, and for once the protagonist is anti-recreational drugs. As you might expect of me, I find it odd that he has written a coming-of-age for a protagonist who is in no way himself – no, I’m sure there’s bits of him in there – but he knows his Melbourne, someone had to write about class sooner or later, and he does it well, and of course his father is a (mostly convincing) truck driver running Melbourne – Perth, so I think I liked it.

.

Christos Tsiolkas, Barracuda, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013. 513pp

see also other Tsiolkas posts:
Australian Grunge (here)
Merciless Gods (here)
The Slap (here)
A Letter from America – Melanie’s take on The Slap (here)

37 thoughts on “Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas

  1. Great point, this, Bill : “Tsiolkas still writes with his dick too often for my taste, seems compelled to put his protagonists’ sex lives in your face, but it’s not happening all the time here, which is a relief,”. I like Tsiolkas because he does tackle gritty social issues, head on (no pun intended!) but I did particularly like Barracuda because although I couldn’t exactly relate to it – male coming of age, private boys school, father-son, etc – the issues felt closer to those I think about – class and snobbery, discrimination, success vs inner achievement.

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    • Thank you Sue. I think I find male and female comings-of-age equally interesting. two ways of looking at what is nearly always the same problem, boys having difficulty forming relationships with girls, girls having difficulty forming relationships with boys, both having difficulties with their peers, their parents, their siblings. On reflection I rather downplayed father/son – the same old story, the distant father more important to the son than the close mother.
      Class and snobbery on the other hand are intimately tied to our private school system and to the iniquitous favouring of private schools by our private school educated politicians.

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      • Oh I didn’t say I don’t find male coming of age interesting but that I can’t relate so closely to it. I agree that many of the issues are similar but gender does create a big difference – or did in our highly gendered past. Some of that may have evened out a bit.

        I’ve just checked my review and I see that more than specifically father-son I felt he was exploring what is a good man, through the various men in Danny’s life. I mainly remembered the father and the coach but there were other men too.

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  2. I’ve often wondered about this book after he wrote The Slap. You describe it well. I’ve not read it. It sounds like a book I might like but “get in line” behind the other books walking around our house.

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    • My books demand attention by staring fixedly at me from the shelves surrounding my desk, though occasionally one will take the leap into my backpack and travel hopefully with me for a few months before returning to its place, often still unread (sorry Toucher, Dorothy Hewett, your turn will come).

      Barracuda is a very Melbourne book, though of course ‘elite’ private schools are everywhere. I hope we one day see your response.

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  3. I might like this one too. I did enjoy ‘Head On’ because I thought it had a few important things to say but Tsiolkas in general is a little too heavy for me. If he refrains from writing “with his dick” (love the way you put that!) too much, then I might give this one a go.

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    • Blame Sue. Head On is the movie of Loaded the book. I loved Loaded, I might even think our short-lived Grunge movement was Aust.Lit’s finest moment. Sex and drugs were what Loaded was all about whereas in Tsiolkas’ later, more middle class books, and growing up in Blackburn he was probably always middle class, they seem more gratuitous. But maybe I lead a sheltered life.

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  4. I (used to) swim for pleasure and exercise, and have always regarded it as good thinking time – presumably because I’m not trying to swim at competitive speeds. Your review me look up the times for my local pool with the intention of getting started again – so thank you for the prompt to do that!

    This seems like an interesting topic for a novel. I went to a (state, not private) grammar school where everyone else was middle or upper-middle class, and that was strange enough for someone from a council estate. I asked my parents several times to let me sit a scholarship exam for a boarding school, and they always refused because the class thing would become so much more of an issue – they explained that I would never be able to join in with the horses/boats/ballets etc social life of my peers and thus would always be left out. At the time, of course, I was frustrated because I saw the posh schools as a ticket to a great education, but now I think that was immensely wise decision on their part!

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    • Swimming is good. I stopped 5 years ago when I failed at a race I really wanted to succeed at. So yes, competitive, cutting off nose etc. My family harass me all the time to start again. I really, really should. But thinking … as soon as I start, I forget my lap count.

      I remember learning about English grammar schools – I have no idea why that was a part of our curriculum – and had they idea they were selective entry by examination. Victoria had high schools and tech schools and working class kids went, by preference, to techs. Until – new education theory – high schools were dumbed down so that everyone could go to year 12. In my day only posh kids went to private schools but in the last two or three decades so much Commonwealth money has been directed to private schools that it is becoming difficult to get a proper maths/science education in all but a few government schools.

      I spent a year with the posh kids, in college for first year uni, and I’m sure your parents were right! In Barracuda, Danny’s father takes your parents’ POV and is bitter as his fears are proved correct

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      • Yes, grammar schools are selective via examination – but the tests are set up so that it’s almost impossible to pass without some degree of coaching, so you need to pay for a private tutor. I was lucky (and pretty unique among my primary school class) in that my mum was a trained teacher, though she’d never worked as one at that point. She tutored me to pass the test. I have shockingly bad spatial awareness, so without her help I never would have passed the “non-verbal reasoning” part, despite being off-the-charts good at maths and verbal reasoning.

        Ah, that makes sense. I never bother with a lap count – just measuring myself by a) if I can keep up with other swimmers in the fast lane, and b) how long I can keep up with them (from 30 minutes to an hour, increasing by ten minute increments as I progress, at which point I considered myself satisfied and stop trying to improve).

        I met a lot of posh people at university, because Southampton is good for sailing so a particular type of posh kid often ends up here. They were mostly quite nice, though I have a vivid memory of being sat in my first year student flat, eating a pheasant that someone’s dad had shot and finding it very weird that no-one else found it weird. And it means that I lost my accent, which I appreciated at the time because it’s better for employability, though I now feel somewhat regretful.

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    • I’m peeved that I can’t remember any titles, but I’ve definitely read several books in which a poor kid goes to a boarding school and is singled out as the poor one who doesn’t go on any vacations or buy new clothes or drive a nice car. It always seems awful. I also speak from experience as a person who was very poor and went to the University of Notre Dame where my peers thought nothing of flying to Ireland (from the U.S., of course) for a wedding of someone they’re not even related to. My people don’t even dream of going to Europe because it seems so unattainable. Instead, we drive over to another state.

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  5. I liked Barracuda and how ‘Melbourne’ this story was very much, although I’ve been too squeamish to really enjoy other stories by Tsiolkas. However, I still think about his stories for years after I’ve read them, probably because he is such a fearless writer.
    I enjoyed reading your review and the connections in your own life to Barracuda.

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    • Tsiolkas certainly knows and loves his Melbourne and that comes through all his fiction (I just checked – I’ve read 5 of his ten, and I don’t suppose there’s much Melbourne in Damascus). I’m finding his writing more confronting rather than less, I wonder if I’m getting old. Interestingly, discussing The Slap with Melanie crystallized some of the difficulties I was having with his seemingly constant descriptions of sex.

      I wonder if you, having read Barracuda, thought that I didn’t pay enough attention to Demet, whom I think may have been my favourite character.

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  6. Ha! I haven’t read Damascus yet, but expect you’re correct in saying that Melbourne won’t get a mention. After reading Merciless Gods though I don’t know if I will read another of Tsiolkas’ books since I cringed my way through each of the short stories.
    Even though Danny and Demet were besties, Barracuda was Danny’s story. I wouldn’t even have remembered her name except that you named her in your review.

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    • Merciless Gods was certainly off-putting. Interesting your (lack of) reaction to Demet. She, and Danny’s mother, are very strong and well-drawn characters and yet he allows them almost no influence over his life. Demet’s request to Danny to be the father of her and her (female) partner’s child is dismissed almost without reflection.

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      • It has been six or seven years since I read Barracuda but it is Danny’s struggles to fit in that I most remember, along with his anger and his competitiveness along with his failure to make it to the top of his sport.
        The female characters have almost completely slipped my mind.
        I wonder what you will remember of the story in years to come? Obviously for me it is just Danny.

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      • Now I’m wondering if I’ve identified so much with Danny and his story that I’ve missed other character’s stories, or if it is because Danny was so selfish that I’ve been swept away in his story which was what the author meant to happen.
        I’m not a critical reader, which doesn’t help. I just like stories.

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      • No, I’m not a critical reader either. It goes against the grain to have to identify trends and so on when I would much rather lay back and let the story flow. Still, I think you’re right to say/feel that Danny dominates what we are told, The other characters only appear to us as they appear to Danny, who
        seems to appreciate that Demet and his mother are strong but acts as though they are irrelevant.

        Sue (WG), and Kim, I think would argue that Tsiolkas is letting us see (rather than telling us) that this, like his selfishness, is a weakness in Danny, and not as some critics argue, evidence of the author’s misogyny.

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  7. I’ve not been keen on him after The Slap, in which his dick managed to write with the same voice for all characters, in my opinion. I might just read this one if I encounter i, for the musings on class and sports.

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    • Tsiolkas is not as insightful as Murakami about competing, probably because in real life he doesn’t (as far as I know) but he is good on class, which is not so obvious in Australia as in England – not codified of course, and the old-money types are mostly invisible to us lower classes.

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  8. Great review. As you know I’m a Tsiolkas fan and while I agree that he writes with his dick too much (!! 😆), I appreciate his dissection of class and race and politics which feature in pretty much everything he writes. Even the new one in which he claims he’s NOT writing about those things.

    Re: your question about whether he was ever a competitive swimmer, the answer is no (I asked him!) but he has always had an affinity for swimming and water, mainly in the ocean, and has done it his whole life.

    There’s a great line in the book about people in Melbourne (of a certain vintage) having a “Glasgow face” because so many Melburnians are of Scottish heritage. That so chimed with me, because I’m of Scottish extraction (my paternal grandparents) and various people over the years have asked me if I am Scottish. I assume that’s because I have a “Glasgow face”. Lol.

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    • I might have Scottish eyebrows, but that’s about as much Scot as I can claim. I’m glad you asked Tsiolkas about his swimming. It’s a long way from Blackburn to the Bay, let alone the ocean. My family’s, my children’s preference was for the back beach at Williamstown (followed by excellent fish and chips). I’m going to have to think about ‘class, race and politics’ in everything he writes. I have Dead Europe lying around somewhere, and I might review that next and see how it matches up (lots of ‘dick’ from memory but perhaps I’ve done that to death).

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      • Dead Europe is like Tsiolkas on steroids! It’s a really dark confronting book about hatred.

        I think I read somewhere that he grew up swimming at St Kilda.

        My first beach experience was Williamstown. I was born at Williamstown Hospital. My mum is from Willy. I lived there for a few years in late 80s with my nanna when I went to uni. I think it’s why I like Freo so much; there are lots of similarities between the two places…

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      • I hadn’t thought about the similarities, but yes they are. I was in Freo on Saturday (bought a book at Paper Bird). We might have a new favourite kid friendly venue – Gage Roads, though I still think the food’s better at Clancy’s.

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  9. I went to primary school with Shane Gould, and even at that young age, at our swimming carnivals while I was still trying to dive off the blocks she was already three-quarters of the way down the Olympic pool – you keow just watching her then that she was phenomenal. That put me off any attempt at being a competitive swimmer for life, but I do love my lap swimming – so having tried Barracuda ages ago and being bored by it, I will try it again! I quite like it when a review makes me have to rethink my opinion of a book I’ve read.

    Oh, and as someone who ducks for cover on ANZAC day, I did appreciate your comments about it Bill – I have to lay low here in the regions, as non-attendance can make a person something of a social pariah!

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    • My very left wing daughter’s daughter was with the scouts maintaining an overnight vigil prior to the dawn service. So obviously we are supportive and even proud but I miss the more easygoing years (30 or 40 years ago!)

      Barracuda is definitely an interesting work. Danny’s struggle with class are both universal and very Melbourne. It will be interesting to see what you make of it.

      I have competed with Shane Gould too, in a Masters 50m butterfly, ten or 15 years ago. A shame really as I would rather have watched her swim.

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      • Who won the Masters Butterfly then Bill? Now you have me wondering!!! Shane was formidable even as a youngster – I wonder if it had something to do with an unusually slow heart rate. I remember everyone was in awe even back then.

        The high point of ANZAC day for me here was watching the military assistance dogs who help returned veterans with PTSD – they and their trainers are a wonder to watch.

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  10. Years ago my old friend and former grad school classmate asked me to read a collection of poetry he put together for publication. My feedback? Something to the effect of, “I feel like I’m sitting down and you keep wagging your penis in my face.” I’m not sure how he took that, but I definitely felt gross the whole time I read his collection. Truly? Violated in a way, like I wasn’t giving consent but it kept going. Since then I’ve paid more attention to dick books, and I realized there’s only one way I’ll read/accept them in the future: if I can read a bevvy of books about vaginas being in your face. Everything has to revolve around what a woman’s vagina is doing, and she has to almost inflict it on other people in the same fashion as what happened in The Slap. Fear of Flying is a small start, and not nearly as in-your-face as this Greek writer (I can’t spell his last name to save my life). Tampa by Alissa Nutting is definitely in The Slap territory.

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    • Your (ongoing) analysis of overly sexualised writing is a revelation. I had never looked at it as a form of assault, though it clearly is. I wrote erotic fiction (unpublished and unpublishable) for a while, years ago. Milly told me she put her brain completely in neutral, to read it, so that none of it would go in.

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      • How…how are there so many layers to you of which I know nothing? Or, I suppose, like all the best relationships we continue to learn more about each other as time passes. You’re never boring, that’s for certain.

        Highly sexual writing doesn’t bother me, it’s that Tsiolkas’s characters are using other people, even from a distance, without their consent. For example, the underage girls on the beach and the guy who starts masturbating to them in The Slap.

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