Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton


Well, this one is going on my best-of-the-year list for sure. I can’t decide whether it’s best described as a fairy tale or as operatic. The story by Dalton, a newspaper crime writer, was inspired by his beloved mother and stepfather who dealt heroin, by his 70-something convicted murderer babysitter, and by his severely alcoholic father. My question is how it is that these folks inspired such a full-throated expression of love.

In an article about the book, Dalton’s mother speculates the book is about half fictional, so it’s hard to know which category any bit of the book falls into. It is true the elderly babysitter was Slim Halliday, known as the Houdini of Boggo Road Gaol, for his impressive jail escapes during the 1940s. When the young narrator Eli Bell meets him, he had served a long sentence for murder and had learned to manipulate time:

‘I mean I could do things with time in there,’ Slim says. ‘I got so intimate with time that I could manipulate it, speed it up, slow it down. Some days all you wanted was to speed it up, so you had to trick your brain….So much to do, so little time. Make your bed, read chapter 30 of Moby Dick, think about Irene, whistle “You are My Sunshine” from start to finish, have a smoke, play yourself at chess, play yourself at chess again because you’re pissed off you lost the first game, go fishing off Briebie Island in your mind, go fishing off Redcliffe jetty in your mind, scale your fish, gut your fish, cook that fat flathead on some hot coals on Suttons Beach and watch the sun go down. You race that bastard clock so hard you get surprised when the day is over and you’re so tired from your daily schedule of bullshit head games that you yawn when you put your head on the pillow at 7 p.m and tell yourself you’re mad for staying up so late and burning the candle at both ends.

It’s not surprising that the question of what it means to be a “good” person comes up a lot, when loved and respected family members and friends may have committed murder or certainly have sold heroin. They contrast sharply with other characters who are relentlessly evil and must be fought to the death.

In the house that his stepfather Lyle’s parents built, Eli and his brother discover a hidden room behind some dresses hanging in a wardrobe. Having recently read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I know what that means. There is good and there is evil, and there’s going to be a fight.

Boy Swallows Universe is operatic in several ways. Concepts and phrases are repeated and expanded upon as musical themes are in opera. Opera has a story, music, a dramatic physical presence that demands your full attention and can be overwhelming. This book rockets from one thought, event, and insight to the next with such an exhausting pace that reading breaks and re-reading were needed to take it all in. And then there’s the eye-roll-worthy moments:  opera plots don’t bear thinking about and occasionally the pronouncements in this book were the same. In both cases those moments do not diminish the whole.

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe, HarperCollins, 2018, 450 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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