Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Book review: Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton (2018)

I didn’t get to the end of this very fine novel because of the extreme violence in it. There’s nothing on the cover that could warn you of this aspect of the book, but you certainly wouldn’t want a minor to be able to read it. Not without some form of guidance by a responsible adult, at least. The book deals with the illegal drug trade in Brisbane during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years – an unprepossessing, bland suburbia stretching out and away into infinity – and so crime and police corruption are central for the purposes of plotting in the book and for the development of its characters.

The way that crime and police corruption infantilise sections of the community portrayed is elegantly explored. In fact, there are direct analogues between things the children in the book do and some of the violent things the adults do in the process of carrying out their nefarious trade. In the worlds of criminals and of children alike, life gets stripped back to essentials: death, love, hate, fear, honour. The hero of the drama, Eli Bell, loves reading the news because of the way it vicariously gives him insights into shadowy worlds where life is lived on the edge. (For this reason true crime is highly profitable for Australian publishers.)

The book starts promisingly, like the first few bars of the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with a kind of chaos that soon resolves itself into a recognisable theme that is then developed more fully. The majority of the book that I read (up to about 38 percent of the way through) has the main character aged thirteen, but in the very earliest sections he’s younger and evidently still in the process of working out the boundaries of his own personality and how it differs from those of the people around him (his mother, his mother’s boyfriend Lyle, and his brother August, who does not speak due to some deep unwillingness to do so; Eli understands his brother and makes allowances for him, but you can see how it would be difficult for a child like August to get through life unscathed). In these earliest sections of the book, there’s a breathless forward momentum that crashes through any barriers that are put up by your ignorance and that keeps you turning the pages. This quality of the novel reminded me of the film ‘Barbarella’ (which came out in 1968 and was directed by Roger Vadim): a hellish place where threats to life and limb are never-ending and come thick and fast, one after another.

The other film that I was reminded of when reading part of the book is ‘Pulp Fiction’, the 1994 crime drama directed by Quentin Tarantino. At about 28 percent of the way through this book there is a great scene set in the house of a third-tier dealer who Lyle and his colleague Teddy are delivering heroin to. The two men have to bring the boys because the local pool, where they wanted to park them for the afternoon, is being maintained and it is closed. The dealer’s house is inhabited by a group of Maoris and one of them, Ezra, who seems like he’s in charge of operations and who is extremely fat, likes watching movies. The conversation that takes place between Ezra and Eli about movies in this scene is a kind of knowing banter that is pacey and fantastic, and it shows how you can quickly develop character with a minimal number of props. All you need is a Betamax machine and a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger acting in ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (1982). (The movie also helps you to date the action.)

What struck me most about this wonderful book (apart from the excessive violence) was the way that poetry and romance lie buried in the lives of even the most marginalised, such as children like August and Eli whose mother is a drug dealer and whose live-in boyfriend helps her run the business. The poetry is there in Eli’s love for his mother. The romance is there in Eli’s aspiration to become a journalist for the Courier-Mail. These are fresh, and quite unlike the stale imaginings of Tim Winton’s latest rheumy eructation, ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ (which I reviewed on this blog in March). If you are a writer and you want to know how to depict the lives of the marginalised and the vulnerable, this book can be a model for you.

Just make sure people know about the violence before you take their cash. The ABC News channel always gives viewers a warning if a segment they are about to screen contains images showing surgical procedures. Similar warnings should be made on the covers of books if they contain excessive violence (especially in this case, as it involves children) that might in a certain light be construed by readers as being gratuitous.

It should be noted in summing up that Dalton is a journalist writing for the Weekend Australian, and used to work at the Courier-Mail in Brisbane. Something about the reckless confidence this book embodies makes learning of this set of circumstances seem pre-ordained.

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