Book review: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

 

If life had a damn good PR team, and it does in a way if you pay any attention to the glass-half-full, carpe diem, bluebird of happiness souls of the world, they would be constantly rabbiting on, with Hallmark-esque gleeful abandon about the limitless possibilities it offers.

It’s a captivating idea, one that speaks to our wish fulfillment fantasies that if we just think it it will happen, that reaching out to grab what it is what we want pretty much guarantees our grasp will closely firmly around it, and life will be something we do, rather than is done to us.

Of course, it’s never that simple – sorry Disney – and Trent Dalton’s luminously-poetic debut novel Boy Swallows Universe makes that very clear even as it rather magically suggests that perhaps, just perhaps, all those good things you long for might just come to pass if you believe strongly enough.

For all its tantalisingly positivity however, and it exists pretty much in defiance of all circumstances to the contrary, the novel inhabits a hard, rough world where nothing is guaranteed, it seems, other than that life will royally screw you over.

Not quite the picture perfect postcard PR image now it it?

“The engine rattles into life and my head bangs against the crate floor. Breathe. Short, calm breaths. No time for one of those nasty panic attacks of Dad’s. This is living. This is what Slim used to call living life at the coalface. All those other saps standing back from the coalface worried about the rock wall caving in, but here I am, Eli Bell, scraping the walls of life, finding my seam, finding my source.” (P. 256)

Life in Darra, Brisbane in the 1980s is hard.

It’s even harder if you’re Eli Bell and your mum long ago split from your dad whom you barely know, and who has issues of his own, your stepdad Lyle who adores you and you adore right back is a drug dealer working for the ruthlessly creepy kingpin Tytus Broz and your mum and Lyle are recovering heroin addicts who love you but haven’t dented their parenting credentials with their drug habits.

Two big points that Eli has in his favour is the undying, protective love of his older brother by a year August, who gave up speaking when he and Eli’s parents split and who communicates via finger-written messages in the air, and his capacity for storytelling, which includes a healthy ability to believe the best even when everything screams at you that it’s a fool’s errand.

For a kid most definitely on the wrong side of the tracks, who dreams of living in a house in happily, leafily middle class The Gap, Eli manages, much of the time to stay reasonably upbeat, helped in no small part by August’s willingness to watch his back and to set Eli right when he is about to get things very, very wrong.

Where Boy Swallows Universe excels, one of many ways in which this uniformly-brilliant book flies long and high, dead blue wrens aside (trust us, this makes, and doesn’t make sense in the book), is the magical realism that is whipped through a very real, authentically-tough tale that never pretends for one minute that an optimistic mindset guarantees you a damn thing.

Certainly not a career as a crime-reporting journalist with The Courier Mail which is where Eli is aiming if the life of crime that snakes around and through his life more often that it doesn’t, manages to leave him along long enough.

 

Trent Dalton (image courtesy official Trent Dalton Twitter account)

 

The book also somehow manages, again almost magically, to balance the in-your-face grim realities of life in a world populated by drug dealing, organised crime and brutalistic violence, with the hope that the hope that comes from August’s indefatigable assurances to Eli that everything will be all right.

Eli wants to believe, he really does – he is a storyteller after all and with the predilection and mindset comes a rich, imaginary belief that anything is possible – but time and again events conspire, including all kinds of loss and rebuilding that tests Eli every time, to snipe away at this remarkable young man’s sense that maybe his hope is pointless after all.

In a story that is never less than rich, transportively immersive, and simply beautifully, impressively and gasp-worthy well-written – if you’re not stopping every page or two note a gem of a sentence or passage, you’re clearly not paying enough attention to the sheer meaningful lyricism of Dalton’s exquisite prose – Eli, moments when, like all of us, belief succumbs to pestilent reality aside, somehow keeps going, determined to clutch that happy ending, or at least, a not awful one, and see if August and that voice on the other end of the mysterious red phone actually know what they’re talking about.

He is the sceptic much of the time, the Scully to August’s Mulder, but he is also the one that defies all signs of the contrary, continually reaching for the fabled brass ring that is often not just out of touch but in another suburb altogether.

My brother, August. My eyes are closing. Blink. My brother, August. Blink.
He whispers in my right ear.
‘You’re gonna be okay, Eli,” he says. ‘You’re gonna be okay. You come back. You always come back.’
I can’t speak. My mouth won’t let me speak. I’m mute. My left forefinger scribbles a line in the air only my older brother will read before the line disappears.
Boy swallows universe.” (P. 465)

What makes Boy Swallows Universe such a compelling read is that Dalton keeps the reality and the hope in perfectly-marvellous tension all the way through, never once promising us some fairytale ending but somehow keeping our hope alive that maybe, just maybe, that’s what Eli will get.

That’s quite a sleight of writing hand there but it works, with Dalton’s ability to be unstintingly authentic somehow sitting cheek-by-jowl with Eli’s largely-adaptable sense that life will deliver on its limitless promise.

All the way through, via a series of positive adult relationships with the likes of Lyle, his mum, his dad and babysitter Slim, an aging ex-con with a whole lot of sage advice learned in the toughest place possible, Boggo Road Jail, Eli is encouraged to do time before it does you, to go forth and swallow the universe before it swallows you whole.

It’s an activist approach to life that stands hard against up a world that seeks to crush and belittle, to lessen and degrade, one Eli mostly embraces, save for the time when the awful weigh of life’s dark side weighs on him more heavily than he can bear (this is where the sheer love and devotion of August to Eli, and back again, comes to fore, as moving a tale of selfless brotherhood as you’re likely to read anywhere).

A substantial, breathlessly-good tale of life lived in the worst of places with the best of mindsets (but not in any kind of Pollyanna fantasy, thank you), Boy Swallows Universe is unutterably brilliant, superbly-written, suffused with wisdom, insight and robustly-moving emotional resonance and a persistent sense that while life might throw the very darkest of things at you, it still possesses the capacity to deliver on the possibilities it has up its considerable, seemingly-inexhaustible sleeve.

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