Christos Tsoilkas’s novels have urban rather than rural settings, featuring a conflicted gay man as the central character. Tsoilkas is often labeled as a “gay novelist” (there's something faintly diminishing about that label); I think he’s more of a contemporary novelist who gets to the uncomfortable truths about sexuality, class, and race in modern Australia. Danny Kelly, the titular hero of Tsiolkas’s new novel is in many respects no different from tortured, sexually conflicted Ari, the beleaguered hero of Tsoilkas’s Loaded. Both boys are working-class outlaws, fanatically trying to find their place in the world.
Ever the literary chameleon, Tsoilkas adapts his tone and style to the demands of each type of story. The Slap, perhaps the most erudite of his novels, attains a certain thrilling quality from its multiple-voiced narrative and themes that circle around a bigoted suburban Melbourne landscape. Barracuda combines both of these elements, moving us through the early 1990s as the Kelly family face the typical hardships associated with many working-class Greek Australians. Although the Kellys share a comfortable existence (dad is an interstate lorry driver and mum’s a hairdresser), finances are always an issue, especially with three children to raise.
Luckily, Danny has won a scholarship to attend an exclusive, private all-boys school. For Danny, life is suddenly full of possibility. He wants to be a championship swimmer, “a golden boy,” and someday win an Olympic medal. But these early years of focused, carefree swimming training are sabotaged by later failures—a stint in jail and a sense of aimlessness that stretches Danny into a cynical, violent monster, leading him to clash with his cautious, taciturn father and with Clyde, his fiery Glaswegian boyfriend whom Danny professes to love but reluctantly dumps in favor of returning to Australia. Even loyal, glamorous Mum, who drove Danny to his swimming practices, competitions and heats, and coach Frank Torma—an immigrant himself—can barely give Danny the support he so desperately needs.
Themes of class anxiety predominate in the novel's opening pages as Danny adjusts to the subversive bullying of the privileged boys at “Cunts College.” In these scenes, Tsoilkas has a keen eye for the small disturbances that inevitably follow from the sharing of showers with gruff, hormone-driven lads with their nitrous, nutty smell “mixed with the fetid whiff of sweat and the acrid stink of deodorant.” Along with the curse of wearing a tie, Danny tries to rise above this schoolyard taunting even though he wants to run away from being labeled a “greasy wog.”
In later sections, we see a harshness to Danny from all he has lost, an emptiness that is most manifested in his building resentment toward these upper-class men and their families. Life for Danny is just “too small and too mean.” He hates the handsome golden boys for their blondness and their insincere smiles which make him feel dark, and short and dirty. Danny’s hardly a stereotypical youth; he has alternating impulses toward kindness and cruelty that are so much a part of real life. Tsoilkas gradually reveals a personal history that speaks both to Danny’s personality and to his love of swimming, even after he must deal with the failure and all of the guilt and shame that comes with it. Fate has determined Danny’s destiny far more ruthlessly than choice or desire.
Tsiolkas’s unique gift is his ability to create a sense of Danny’s past through describing ordinary moments in which difference reveals itself by flashes. Although the narrative moves slowly, the stream-of-consciousness plot—so in sync with the rhythms of daily life—is natural and careful to avoid moments of false drama. In some ways, this is the best part of the novel. As Danny’s father rails against “the kind of filth” his son associates with, his siblings Theo and Regan hover around the edges, neglected and sullen, as does Danny’s best friend, Demet. When a new Dan realizes he will no longer be part of the swimming team, the shame whips at him, lacerating him, reminding him of how far he has fallen. The humiliation is always there and so is the hate, at one with his blood and lungs: “What sears through me now is a clear understanding of my worthlessness, I am the debt that can never be paid off.”
It’s tough to recognize you are no longer “of the sky but of the earth.” Coupled with a father who from the very beginning resented his family’s time, energy and expectations being focused on their eldest child, Danny is swept up in a series of unfortunate events, far from the happiness he experienced when he was held and buoyed and immersed in water. Still, Danny’s tortured, unconventional mindset will offer even readers who are unfamiliar with Tsoilkas’s work much to enjoy.
As in his previous works, Tsoilkas is interested in the way secrets and lies can force a moral and emotional coarsening. While the ending of Barracuda captures the great virtue of Tsoilkas’ novels—his ability to combine a storybook narrative with psychological realism—it also shows how that in the face of adversity, a true hero’s loves and losses can be knitted together in an extraordinary combination of tenderness, heartbreak and control.