Monday, July 1, 2019

"Boy Swallows Universe" by Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe
by Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

It’s that time again - book club! This month, we’re featuring Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton. Each month you can read my review and the opinions of my fellow book clubbers. Please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section below.
Next month, we will be reading The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser. Please join us on 29 July to discuss.

Brisbane, 1983: A lost father, a mute brother, a mum in jail, a heroin dealer for a stepfather and a notorious crim for a babysitter. It's not as if Eli's life isn't complicated enough already. He's just trying to follow his heart, learning what it takes to be a good man, but life just keeps throwing obstacles in the way - not least of which is Tytus Broz, legendary Brisbane drug dealer.
But Eli's life is about to get a whole lot more serious. He's about to fall in love. And, oh yeah, he has to break into Boggo Road Gaol on Christmas Day, to save his mum.
A story of brotherhood, true love, and the most unlikely of friendships, Boy Swallows Universe will be the most heartbreaking, joyous and exhilarating novel you will read all year.

Book Video
Author Trent Dalton speaks about his inspiration for writing Boy Swallows Universe.

Your end is a dead blue wren.
‘Did you see that, Slim?’
‘See what?’
Your end is a dead blue wren. No doubt about it. Your. End. No doubt about it. Is. A. Dead. Blue. Wren.
The crack in Slim’s windscreen looks like a tall and armless stickman bowing to royalty. The crack in Slim’s windscreen looks like Slim. His windscreen wipers have smeared a rainbow of old dirt over to my passenger side. Slim says a good way for me to remember the small details of my life is to associate moments and visions with things on my person or things in my regular waking life that I see and smell and touch often. Body things, bedroom things, kitchen things. This way I will have two reminders of any given detail for the price of one.
That’s how Slim beat Black Peter. That’s how Slim survived the hole. Everything had two meanings, one for here, here being where he was then, cell D9, 2 Division, Boggo Road Gaol, and another for there, that boundless and unlocked universe expanding in his head and his heart. Nothing in the here but four green concrete walls and darkness upon darkness and his lone and stationary body. An angle iron and steel mesh bed welded to a wall. A toothbrush and a pair of cloth prison slippers. But a cup of old milk slid through a cell door slot by a silent screw took him there, to Ferny Grove in the 1930s, the lanky young farmhand milking cows on the outskirts of Brisbane. A forearm scar became a portal to a boyhood bike ride. A shoulder sunspot was a wormhole to the beaches of the Sunshine Coast. One rub and he was gone. An escaped prisoner here in D9. Pretend free but never on the run, which was as good as how he’d been before they threw him in the hole, real free but always on the run.
He’d thumb the peaks and valleys of his knuckles and they would take him there, to the hills of the Gold Coast hinterland, take him all the way to Springbrook Falls, and the cold steel prison bed frame of cell D9 would become a water-worn limestone rock, and the prison hole’s cold concrete floor beneath his bare feet summer-warm water to dip his toes into, and he would touch his cracked lips and remember how it felt when something as soft and as perfect as Irene’s lips reached his, how she took all his sins and all his pain away with her quenching kiss, washed him clean like Springbrook Falls washed him clean with all that white water bucketing on his head.
I’m more than a little concerned that Slim’s prison fantasies are becoming mine. Irene resting on that wet and mossy emerald boulder, naked and blonde, giggling like Marilyn Monroe, head back and loose and powerful, master of any man’s universe, keeper of dreams, a vision there to stick around for here, to let the anytime blade of a smuggled shiv wait another day.
‘I had an adult mind,’ Slim always says. That’s how he beat Black Peter, Boggo Road’s underground isolation cell. They threw him in that medieval box for fourteen days during a Queensland summer heatwave. They gave him half a loaf of bread to eat across two weeks. They gave him four, maybe five cups of water.
Slim says half of his Boggo Road prison mates would have died after a week in Black Peter because half of any prison population, and any major city of the world for that matter, is filled with adult men with child minds. But an adult mind can take an adult man anywhere he wants to go.
Black Peter had a scratchy coconut fibre mat that he slept on, the size of a doormat, or the length of one of Slim’s long shinbones. Every day, Slim says, he lay on his side on the coir mat and pulled those long shinbones into his chest and closed his eyes and opened the door to Irene’s bedroom and he slipped under Irene’s white bedsheet and he spooned his body gently against hers and he wrapped his right arm around Irene’s naked porcelain belly and there he stayed for fourteen days. ‘Curled up like a bear and hibernated,’ he says. ‘Got so cosy down there in hell I never wanted to climb back up.’
Slim says I have an adult mind in a child’s body. I’m only twelve years old but Slim reckons I can take the hard stories. Slim reckons I should hear all the prison stories of male rape and men who broke their necks on knotted bedsheets and swallowed sharp pieces of metal designed to tear through their insides and guarantee themselves a week-long vacation in the sunny Royal Brisbane Hospital. I think he goes too far sometimes with the details, blood spitting from raped arseholes and the like. ‘Light and shade, kid,’ Slim says. ‘No escaping the light and no escaping the shade.’ I need to hear the stories about disease and death inside so I can understand the impact of those memories of Irene. Slim says I can take the hard stories because the age of my body matters nothing compared to the age of my soul, which he has gradually narrowed down to somewhere between the early seventies and dementia. Some months ago, sitting in this very car, Slim said he would gladly share a prison cell with me because I listen and I remember what I listen to. A single tear rolled down my face when he paid me this great roommate honour.
‘Tears don’t go so well inside,’ he said.
I didn’t know if he meant inside a prison cell or inside one’s body. Half out of pride I cried, half out of shame, because I’m not worthy, if worthy’s a word for a bloke to share a lag with.
‘Sorry,’ I said, apologising for the tear. He shrugged.
‘There’s more where that came from,’ he said.
Your end is a dead blue wren. Your end is a dead blue wren.
[Want more? Click below to read a longer excerpt.]

Praise for the Book
“Without exaggeration, the best Australian novel I have read in more than a decade.” ~ Sydney Morning Herald
Boy Swallows Universe is a wonderful surprise: sharp as a drawer full of knives in terms of subject matter; unrepentantly joyous in its child's-eye view of the world; the best literary debut in a month of Sundays.” ~ The Australian
Boy Swallows Universe hypnotizes you with wonder, and then hammers you with heartbreak.” ~ Washington Post
“Marvelously plot-rich ... filled with beautifully lyric prose ... At one point Eli wonders if he is good. The answer is ‘yes’, every bit as good as this exceptional novel.” ~ Booklist
“Dalton's splashy, stellar debut makes the typical coming-of-age novel look bland by comparison ... This is an outstanding debut.” ~ Publisher's Weekly
“Extraordinary and beautiful storytelling.” ~ Guardian

Book Clubbers’ Thoughts

Kerrie: “I started off reading the audiobook, but I was having trouble following it. I then read the hardcopy and loved it! Now I’m listening to it again.”
Kerry: “I got about a quarter of the way into it but wasn’t enjoying, so I gave up. I’ve got better things to do with my time than to read books I don’t enjoy.”
Maryann: “I really enjoyed it. I couldn’t put it down!”
Nerida: “Sorry, I didn’t read it. I just wanted to spend the evening with you all!”
Consensus: Don’t give up, and you’re sure to enjoy it.

My Review
I got this book on loan from the library.

By Lynda Dickson
Boy Swallows Universe is set in the 1980s. At the time of reading, I thought this was a convenient way of plotting a story without mobile phones. However, author Trent Dalton estimates his story is “60 per cent fact and 40 per cent fantasy”. I wish I had known this before I started reading the book. The childish antics, choppy narrative, and confusing flashbacks - compounded with the drug dealing and gratuitous violence - nearly caused me to give up about a third of the way through. I persevered, and I’m so glad I did. Knowing now that most of the story was based on the author’s own experiences, makes it all the more harrowing.
Notwithstanding the serious subject matter, the book is full of dry humor, literary references, and astute observations on human behavior. It follows the childhood of Eli Bell between the ages of twelve and eighteen and introduces us to the key players in his life.
Arthur “Slim” Halliday was “the greatest prison escapee who ever lived”. The papers call him “the Taxi Driver Killer” but twelve-year-old Eli says, “I just call him my babysitter.” Slim teaches Eli that the way “to remember the small details of my life is to associate moments and visions with things on my person or things in my regular waking life that I see and smell and touch often.” And this is how Eli recounts his story, collecting rich details by which he will later remember the events that shape his life.
Eli’s thirteen-year-old brother August, who is mute after a traumatic childhood incident, writes in the air with prophetic flourish, “forever dipping his finger into his eternal glass well of invisible ink”.
Despite being a heroin dealer, his mother’s boyfriend Lyle is a loving stepfather and role model and the first man Eli ever loves. Everything Eli lives through will lead up to that one moment of truth, when his adult life collides with his childhood life, and he finally gets the chance to avenge Lyle.
Eli himself is wise beyond his years: “… the age of my body matters nothing compared to the age of my soul”. It’s no wonder he falls for the much older Caitlyn Spies, criminal reporter for the Courier Mail. His eye for detail and his childhood amongst criminals, make him want to become a journalist. “I’m not interested in crime as much as the people who commit crimes,” he says. He’s fascinated with the idea that one pivotal event can determine your destiny. “I’m interested in how they got to the point they got to. I’m interested in that moment when they decided to be bad instead of good.”
The book is full of such moments, when seemingly insignificant events and details come back into play: Slim telling Eli how he broke out of jail, the lucky freckle on Eli’s right index finger, his love of football, his visit to the clock tower, the first line of the book … “Your end is a dead blue wren,” is what August writes in the air at the beginning of the book. And, in the end, it all comes back to that beginning. “Forward to the beginning,” Eli says. “That’s all I’ve ever been doing. Moving forward to the start.”
Funny, heartbreaking, uplifting.
Warnings: coarse language, drug use, graphic violence, drug dealing, general grossness, sexual references, domestic violence, alcoholism.

Some of My Favorite Lines
“I read everything. Slim says reading is the greatest escape there is and he’s made some great escapes.”
“The downside is life is short and has to end. The upside is it comes with bread, wine and books.”
“These are your sunshine hours and you can make them last forever if you see all the details.”
“He said time was killing us slowly. ‘Time will do you in,’ he said. ‘So do your time before it does you.’”
“I realise now that the average street grunt suburban drug dealer is not too far removed from the common pizza delivery boy.”
“I’m a good man,’ Slim says. ‘But I’m a bad man too. And that’s like all men, kid. We all got a bit o’ good and a bit o’ bad in us. The tricky part is learnin’ how to be good all the time and bad none of the time. Some of us get that right. Most of us don’t.”
“Eli was born with the two qualities of any good storyteller – the ability to string a sentence together and the ability to bullshit”
“You don’t tell stories. You tell beginnings and middles and ends but you don’t tell stories. You and Dad have never told me a single complete story.”
“Maybe we’d all be much more effective communicators if we all shut up more.”
“The whole point of life is doing what’s right, not what’s easy.”
“You like all the little details. You don’t write news. You paint pretty pictures.”

About the Author
Trent Dalton
Trent Dalton was born in Ipswich on the outskirts of Brisbane, Australia, and raised by a suburban wingless angel and a tattooed bibliophile mud crab fisherman with a soft spot for drunks. He's a novelist, a two-time Walkley Award-winning journalist, a screenwriter and, coolest of all, the father of two girls. Author of By Sea and Stars: The Story of the First Fleet and Boy Swallows Universe, winner of the 2019 Indie Book Awards Book of the Year.


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