Boy Swallows Universe
- By Trent Dalton
- 464 pp.
- Reviewed by Sunil Dasgupta
- June 7, 2020
A “foul-mouthed Tom Sawyer” navigates Brisbane’s seamy underbelly in this ambitious, unwieldy Aussie debut.
In Boy Swallows Universe, Australian author Trent Dalton delivers a grit-lit story set in working-class Brisbane. An overly articulate 12-year-old who’s growing up with a non-verbal brother, a psychotic drunk of a father, a drug-dealing stepfather, an abused mother, and a real-life Yoda sets the terms for this violent and sometimes magical coming-of-age tale.
Eli Bell, the boy in question, is a foul-mouthed Tom Sawyer trying to find a way out of his hardscrabble existence to his dream job — as a writer for the city newspaper — and to his dream girl.
Eli’s older brother, Gus, is gifted but does not speak; he can, as it turns out, but refuses to. Instead, Gus uses his index finger to write words in the air that only his brother and stepdad understand. Whether Gus is autistic or just traumatized floats in the background, as do questions about immigration, corruption, race relations, gang violence, and class exploitation.
Eli’s mother, Frances, left the boys’ father after he drove himself and the kids into a dam on a moonlit night. They now live with her and stepdad Lyle (a weekend heroin dealer), who works for Tytus Broz, a prosthetic-limb maker and secret drug king of Brisbane. Eli and Gus have an unusual babysitter, a convicted murderer called Slim Halliday, who functions as the book’s Yoda.
Wanting a better life, Lyle is stashing away “gear” for when heroin’s street price rises. When Tytus and his henchmen take Lyle away for doing side business, and Frances goes to prison after taking the fall for Lyle’s dealing, Eli and Gus are left with the father who once tried to drown them.
As Lyle is being led away, he air-writes to Gus the location of hidden drugs. To persuade Gus to reveal the location, the villains chop off Eli’s index finger. Eli’s subsequent adventures constitute the bulk of the novel and include a reverse prison break to see his suicidal mom, the reformation of his father, and a “Parent Trap”-style denouement.
This is Dalton’s debut novel, and he is a compelling storyteller with an exceptional voice. He depicts a heroin-addled Australia that we are not familiar with in the United States, a perch from where Australia looks like all gorgeous beaches and even more gorgeous beach bums. But Oz fought alongside the U.S. in Vietnam and welcomed a large number of refugees from war-torn Southeast Asia who brought with them networks that made the drug trade possible.
Dalton casts a Vietnamese restaurant owner as the big heroin importer, and her son as a crazed gang leader. That family becomes a stand-in for almost 3 million Asian-Australians who today account for about 10 percent of the country’s population. As an author, Dalton has the right to take any position on immigration he likes, but, in this case, the resulting stereotyping seems unintentional.
Dalton writes of Lyle, a native-born white Australian, as the central cog in the drug trade. In the most overtly political turn in the book, the author describes all population groups as participating in and being affected by the trade. He also writes of police corruption, but his thin description of the Vietnamese characters, as well as criminals such as Tytus and his henchmen, hurts the book’s narrative fidelity.
There is a vignette of a Maori family so fleeting that the reader is left wondering where other minority groups stand in Australia. While clearly part of the suburban working class, these characters do not drive the story; that burden is borne primarily by white characters. Tytus, the arch villain, literally dresses in all white.
But the group most conspicuously missing from this book in which heroin plays a central role? Addicts. Despite their involvement in the drug trade, none of the main characters use, an improbability if you know anything about the scourge of drugs. Beer and, briefly, amphetamines occupy a larger presence in these characters’ lives.
Boy Swallows Universe would have been better with a tighter edit. The treatment of two particular flashbacks is instructive. In one, Eli reads a newspaper story about Slim Halliday that runs six pages in the book. In the other, Eli and Gus hide under their father’s home, eavesdropping on a conversation about their near-drowning. The first episode seems forced, but the second is an incisive treatment of childhood trauma and illuminates Gus’ eccentricities.
Perhaps most importantly, the book might have ended around page 353, at the “Parent Trap” moment, which would’ve spared readers from its formulaic, Hollywood ending. Still, look out for Trent Dalton. If he finds an assertive editor for his next work, his voice will compel you to read it to the very end.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]
Sunil Dasgupta teaches politics and government at UMBC at the Universities at Shady Grove.