Tsiolkas’ previous novel, The Slap, was a tough act to follow. Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2009, longlisted for the Booker in 2010 and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (2009), it was an all-round overachiever.
Like The Slap, Barracuda’s plot pivots on an isolated incident of domestic violence, in which someone’s temper snaps. Although it’s hinted at throughout the novel, Barracuda builds up to that moment, whereas The Slap begins with it.
If, like me, you’re not a sports fan in the slightest and were concerned about the swimming, this won’t be an issue. Like all great books, Barracuda transcends its subject. It’s a no-holds-barred exploration of a young swimmer’s sexuality, nationality and identity.
At its heart, Barracuda is about failure. Danny’s downfall comes when he places fifth in an international competition, and, in his disbelief, has a very public tantrum.
‘He gave it his best. Strongest, fastest, best. Fifth? It is impossible. His best cannot be fifth.’
We then watch him crash back through the layers of his former success. The loss of his beloved swimming team, the scholarship to his fancy school, his ambition, and finally, the loss of his freedom. Tsiolkas does a fantastic job of documenting this fall from grace: how utterly unacceptable it is to Danny, and how couched in shame is his misstep.
‘I know what is on my tail, I can hear it, I can even smell it, the rank aroma of a body that will not listen, a body that betrays, a body that will give up everything and still prove to be useless. It is failure I can smell. And I understand, I know, it is failure that is evil.’
His failure disgusts him, and prompts in him a sort of moral relativity, which has him exploring, at one point, which of his loved ones he’d exchange for success. (All of them, it turns out.)
‘How much do I want it? … I’d give up my father. I’d give up my mother. I see it, I see it clearly, a truck crashing off a highway … Now I understand evil.’
In the end, he concludes that he’d give up his own soul for it.
Danny’s raw aggression, as well as his passion, does dominate the novel. Tsoilkas has been criticised in the past for his extravagant use of naughty words, his profligate use of abhorrent characters and sexual violence.
Sure, many of us might find Danny’s traits repellant in real life, but in fiction, the same rules don’t apply. Critics should remember that no one’s suggesting inviting this guy to a dinner party.
He swears a helluva lot; he calls gay guys ‘faggots’ and Greeks ‘wogs’, although – or more likely, because – he is both himself. I don’t think he’s any less likeable for it. I doubt any of us would come out looking too rosy if we could read each other’s inner narratives.
As Tsiolkas said in his podcast with Guardian Books, ‘it’s much more interesting to write about characters who are ambivalent’. He said this about The Slap, but it also applies to Barracuda. I dread to think how boring it would be if all the characters were ‘likeable’.
As well as just about everything else, Danny struggles with belonging, with being a ‘wog’ in modern Australia.
‘We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and we occupy this land illegitimately and we’re toadies to the Poms and servile to the Yanks…’
For all its questioning of Australia and the unthinking nationalism of ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi’, Barracuda is certainly not without tenderness for the place. Many of the characters are homesick, in their own ways.
‘Where are you going to find peace? … This is the only home we have.’
It’s like a child railing against the inevitable will of its parents; in the end, he must submit to their will, and come home.
Danny’s Scottish lover, Clyde, also comes out with some real gems on homosexuality. I’ll leave you with this one:
‘I’m not interested in the middle-class fantasy of being superpoof … I like being a faggot, mate, I like it a lot and I think being free in our middle age is what we deserve for straights making our childhood and our teenage years so cuntish.’
I was lucky enough to meet the man himself at Barracuda’s London launch party, thanks to Atlantic Books.