It’s just a little word – just four letters. It stars with a ‘c’ and ends in ‘t’. Why should such a small word be so off-putting to me, so abhorrent? I am a man of the world, aren’t I? Even after sixty years on this planet, this little word still makes me flinch. It makes me flinch when I espy it in print, or hear it uttered on-screen, in the street or, back in my teaching days – in the playground. The word itself has various meanings, but is rarely used in a positive context. It’s a word of anger, in the real world usually fouling out of the mouths of the articulately challenged as a put down. I could never write it in my scribblings – I have enough trouble using the f-bomb.
But there are no inhibitions with either word with Tsiolkas in ‘Barracuda’ He uses them with abandon; with pungent frequency right from the get-go. And he soon had me recoiling with distaste. Now don’t get me started with the sex in it. That it was between men of the homosexual persuasion had me coming over all squeamish. I insert a coda here that I am all for gay marriage and all that – but please spare me having to read of or see their intimate activities. I even have to turn away from the tele when two men have a pash!
But, being an avid review reader, I did know what was coming. I’d put off taking the plunge for a while, seeing the book sitting up there on a shelf in my man-cave, seemingly saying to me, ‘You thought ‘The Slap’ was the best book written in the first decade after the turn of the millennium, so you really do need to read me – my masters follow-up.’ So, against my gut instinct, I did. I am proud of myself – I made it through to the last page – but very little pleasure was had in doing so. Whereas ‘The Slap’ grabbed me and held me from go to whoa, despite just about every character being quiet detestable – ugly people leading ugly lives. ‘Barracuda’, to me, was just plain boring – when I wasn’t tut-tutting about that word. ‘The Slap’ did have its detractors too, but I thought it was magnificent – and it’s visual interpretation was pretty damn impressive as well. Praise be they don’t do one of this.
If anything there were more positive beings in this novel than in his previous, even if they all seemed to have a flawed side still. As for the hero, he only grew on me when Tsiolkas introduced a softer aspect to his character once he was through with the tumultuous ride he had during his teen and young adult years. It’s only when he meets cousin Dennis that the book fleetingly came alive for me. This occurred on a pretty wretched family trip to Adelaide, but sees our hero take Dennis under his wing. His cousin has an acquired brain injury – but is by far the author’s most sympathetic creation in this offering. The fulcrum of the novel are the travails of Danny Kelly, in his own mind, destined to be an Olympic champion in the pool with the natural talent he possesses. This, though, isn’t your typical tale of sports-person from the boondocks conquering adversity and attaining a shower of gold. No, Danny succumbs pretty quickly as he hasn’t the mental toughness such success requires. He is partial to major meltdowns, one such landing him in the clink. For most of the first part of the novel the whole world seems agin him. It’s only after he reaches his lowest point does there seem some hope of scaling back up to some sort of redemption – though never to the glittering heights he once imagined for himself.
To be frank most of it was pretty turgid going. There’s no doubt Tsiolkas possesses unquestioned talent, just like his protagonist, but, unlike with ‘The Slap’, it just doesn’t gel here for me. The narrative flip flops also became pretty tiresome by the conclusion – too smart by half is Mr Tsiolkas in this regard, methinks. I do love to look forward to time with a book, but I was constantly returning to this reluctantly. Admiring an author is one thing, liking what he/she produces is another.