Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published March 11th 2014
From the author of The Slap comes something even better
Christos Tsiolkas' 1995 debut novel, the sexually charged Loaded, took us inside the angry, young head of Ari, a gay Greek Australian teenager. It was an intoxicating and fascinating experience to be a part of Ari's restless and vitriolic inner dialogue. The book was a snapshot of our multi-cultural society, with Tsiolkas' location-specific references to the inner suburbs of Melbourne adding an extra air of verisimilitude to the story.
Recently the writer's popularity has taken a swift uptick, with The Slap capturing the public's imagination. Now in many ways he returns to the themes of Loaded with Barracuda, featuring a central character not unlike Ari. Danny is a gay Greek/Scottish Australian full of self loathing for not having the same privileges as the "golden boys" in his swimming team, yet he is inexorably drawn to them.
Barracuda is more ambitious than Loaded in many ways, delving deeper into its protagonist via a more complex structure. While Loaded had a linear narrative that often felt like an uncensored stream of consciousness, Barracuda is split into two time lines. High school student Danny is obsessively determined to be an Olympic gold medalist, while ten years or so later his older self (now preferring to be called Dan) is barely making an attempt to re-assimilate into society after having committed a terrible crime, the details of which are slowly revealed to the reader.
While Dan/Danny's sexuality is obviously a large part of his identity, his pursuit and desire of other men is not the meat of the story here as was the case with Loaded. Rather his single-minded determination to transcend his cultural background and triumph over his newfound, more affluent peers is what propels the first story strand and hangs like a shaming shadow over the second.
There is such a visceral immediacy to the way Tsiolkas describes his protagonist's self-loathing, his desperation to prove his worth, and the irrational anger he feels towards his family, schoolmates and almost anyone he observes within his environment.
And it's an environment that Tsiolkas again describes in location-specific detail, contrasting the verdant streets of Toorak, home to all the golden boys, to the working class sprawl of Danny's family house in Reservoir. Even the class distinctions between holidaying in Rye and Sorrento are scrutinised.
Like Ari in Loaded, Danny's head is a hectic place to spend any length of time. He's a young man that we have seen among us but have probably not come close to understanding. Being inside his troubled mind is a unique literary experience. While Tsiolkas seemingly makes little attempt to manipulate us into liking Danny, it's impossible to stop him from getting under your skin. He's a complex character who's not likely to find peace with a comfy redemptive resolution.
This is an all too real world where little boys are brought up to believe sport is king and adulation from the public is the highest calling there is. For a teen who doesn't fit the straight, Anglo Saxon, private school profile, you either become World Champion, or you're nothing.
So what happens when you're nothing? The answer is as compelling as any hero's story.