May 2022 Open Book Group – Boy swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Trent Dalton is a journalist with Walkley and similar awards to his credit. Like many journalists, he has turned to writing novels. This ensures accurate and readable prose but nothing exciting as to style. There is a high proportion of profanity and scatological language in the story and while this is in keeping with a setting grounded in drugs and abuse, some readers found it distasteful.

Dalton is a proud Brisbane boy and allows that his novel is about 50/50 a true story from his own background. His father is dead, but his mother and brothers survive so he walks a tightrope in revealing what may be family secrets. But the life depicted is one where there is little stability and much violence. And the authorities are a hindrance rather than a help. At one point the boys are homeless and the welfare returns them to their alcoholic father from whom the family had already escaped.

The story centres on a boy, about 12, called Eli Bell, otherwise known as Tink. He has an older brother, August, or Gus, who shows signs of genius but has chosen to be selectively mute. He communicates by writing in the air and sometimes on paper. Eli’s role is to interpret for him and generally look after him, but Gus is also a moderating influence.

The boys live with their mother and her boyfriend Lyle Orlik in a battered house in Darra, a working-class suburb. Among other battlers, it has Polish and Vietnamese refugees and a thriving drug industry. Lyle is a dealer and Eli goes to school with Darren Dang, whose mother is Back Off Bich Dang, a major dealer. Lyle and the mother, whose name we never learn, get by with drug dealing and using. This means the supply of food is erratic and there is one harrowing scene where the mother is detoxing, and another where she is gaoled. There is another awful scene where Eli is subject to extreme bullying. Eli and Gus love their mother dearly despite her drug habit and at one point Eli breaks into the gaol to see her.

The boys have one main ally and protector: Slim, an ex-criminal who has a legendary record for prison escapes. Slim is modelled on a real person, Arthur ‘Slim’ Halliday, known as the Houdini of Boggo Road. He has chosen to become the boys’ protector and mentor. Surrounded by wickedness Eli wants to become, in his terms, a good man. Another protector called Alexander Bermudez turns up to their aid at a crucial point because Eli had written to him while he was in prison.

The story has an impressive cast of villains: Tytus Broz, the Lord of Limbs, who has a daughter named Hanna who has lost both her hands and has prosthetics. Her father runs a business called Human Touch which makes prosthetics, and he is intent on using grafts from real people to make the best prosthetics. He funds this by drug dealing carried out at arm’s length. To this end, he kidnaps people and sets up a cryogenic vault where he stores them. He is aided in this by Iwan Krol, a super-villain, who stalks the boys and almost succeeds in killing Eli.

Eli is very good with words and his ambition is to be a journalist. He makes contact with a journalist called Caitlyn Spies who mentors him and also becomes his love object.

There are two rather surreal elements in the story: the phrase at the commencement of the story:  Your end is a dead blue wren, and the role of the red telephone, found in a hidden room under the boys’ house from which they get important information without knowing who is at the other end. Dalton says that this red telephone idea was his starting point for the whole story but the way it is used is not convincing. And some of the more surreal passages are confusing. One reads through them to find out what happens next.

The story is too long to summarise here. But in short, the beginning is not promising. It is confusing and one is not sure where the story is heading. One is loathed to continue. However, if one perseveres the narrative seems to take off and the story begins to take shape. We then have a roller coaster ride with many memorable scenes and plenty of cliff-hangers.

The end is a complete cascade of rather unlikely events with finally a happy ending. It does keep one reading just to find out what happens. The one bright light is Eli and one hopes for a happy ending for him after a very hard beginning.

Is it worth reading? Many of our group did not stay the course but those who did felt rewarded.


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