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