Very few sports novels are actually about sport, and Barracuda is no exception. Recent discourse in Australian literary circles has focussed on how to better promote the excellent work done by female writers in this country. Barracuda is a slap in the face to this trend—more than any novel I have read recently, this is a novel that interrogates what it means to be a man. How do you go from being a man in your prime, a man perfectly sculpted to take part in the ultimate masculine challenge to man reviled for the very things that make you who you are?
All of this is embodied in Daniel Kelly. Danny is the misfit at his private school—placed there on a sport scholarship, he is hated by his teammates because he is better than then, even though he is poorer, and much less white. But while he is being bullied mercilessly in the classroom, he is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the pool. He is the Barracuda, mercilessly beating everyone that gets in his way. The disconnect between his in-pool and out-of-pool selves is unsurprising, but the vast distance between the two is.
Out of the pool, Danny’s weakness is his crippling self-doubt. and I cannot help but wonder how many other athletes suffer a similar affliction. Danny’s self-worth is so intrinsically tied to how he performs in the pool, he quite literally cannot imagine a life in which he cannot compete with the world’s best. There would be nothing else for him. To see a man try and claw his way back to having any kind of functional self-respect is a fascinating journey, and one Tsiolkas treats with deftness and dignity.
There are, of course, no excuses for what Danny does to his friend (think Nick D’Arcy on a bad night). At that point, he embodies everything that is wrong with Australian sports culture, particularly in respect to way we build up young men (I use that word deliberately) to succeed. And so, in parallel with this story of the Fall is a story of redemption, of a broken man attempting to find himself. The internal has become external as Danny becomes a drifter, floating through the world, trying desperately to find a role for himself in a world that has no time or space for losers.
I always image people who came to Christos Tsiolkas’ work via The Slap get something of a shock when they decide to dip into his earlier work. Loaded, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe are glorious novels, unlike anything else in the Australian canon, but they are intense, in-your-face works that force the reader to re-evaluate a great many of their opinions about contemporary Australia. The big question I wanted answered when I opened Barracuda was this: which way would Tsiolkas go this time? Would he continue the careful examination he began in The Slap of contemporary Australia, or would he return to his wilder youth?
I can’t help but feel that Barracuda is Tsiolkas defanged. There is no question that he is an excellent examiner of the contemporary Australian psyche—indeed, I can think of no other. But Barracuda is another step towards the mainstream. The scenes designed to shock are no longer shocking (particularly the sex scenes, which seem crowbarred in just for shock value), the barbs aimed at upper-middle-class white Australians seem to be just a little bit less sharp.
Barracuda is not Christos Tsiolkas’ best novel. But even when he’s having an off day, he forces us to think. How do we deal with the internal pressures we place on ourselves to satisfy the wants and demands of the many? I think Tsiolkas is ultimately hopeful in this respect: he sees paths of redemption for all of us who have done something terrible, for those of us who struggle to find our place in society.
Oh, and that last chapter? Perfection.