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.

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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.