‘This is a novel about how to be a good man’ – What happens when a champion athlete fails? The writer Christos Tsiolkas, author of ‘The Slap’ and, now, ‘Barracuda’, has some intriguing ideas
The last time we met, Christos Tsiolkas was in the middle of a publicity maelstrom. His fourth novel, The Slap, had just been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was outselling the other nominees. The content of the book – misogyny, racism, violence – provoked huge debate and propelled its author blinkingly into the spotlight. The Slap effectively used multiple viewpoints from an ensemble cast to tell a multicultural story, but Barracuda hones in on one man. Danny Kelly is a working class boy who happens to be a champion swimmer, and has his sights set on the Sydney Olympics, but Tsiolkas deliberately avoids giving us a Hollywood version of this story. “I didn’t want to do the ‘happy ever after’ where the poor kid makes it, because that’s not the reality for most people. It’s not faithful to most of our lives so I didn’t want the reader to ask ‘does Danny become an Olympic hero?’. Right from the first chapter, we know that he doesn’t. The more interesting question to me is what happens when you don’t achieve your dream.”
Born to working class immigrant Greek parents, Tsiolkas’ had his own dreams about going to college (he was the first in his family to do so) and becoming a writer. His novels – Barracuda is his sixth – have not just explored the idea of ethnicity and race, but of class and wealth. Today, Tsiolkas is sitting near the window of a chic suburban hotel, and as we talk several members of a bulky, smiling rugby team in training gear saunter by. Like a walking metaphor for Danny Kelly’s story in Barracuda, they epitomise what Tsiolkas says (initially anyway) about sport: It’s tough, it’s extremely competitive and you have to love it to succeed. “Sport is still an area where there are huge disparities of wealth. When I was working on the book, I interviewed Lisa Forrest (who captained Australia’s swimming team at the 1980 Olympics) and she came from a really working class background. From the start, her family were very supportive of her decision to be a professional swimmer, but they also told her ‘our lives cannot be dominated by this, your siblings are equally important’.”
In telling us early on in the book that Danny doesn’t succeed, Tsiolkas is telling an anti-story, and possibly an anti-hero story. In high-profile fields of endeavour (and let’s face it, they’ve all become inextricably linked to celebrity), there are prerequisite sweeteners: actors go to fancy premieres, musicians DJ at no-expense-spared after parties. For sportsmen and women, there is a very non-public graft and elevated physical expectations. “No one sees all the hours spent training, getting up early, limiting your diet. One of the things that isn’t talked about is that for a lot of athletes – when their body gives out at the end of their career – a gold medal just isn’t enough. This book was never going to be about the achievers, the golden boys, so it couldn’t have been about (Ian) Thorpe”.
Frequently Tsiolkas makes analogous references to swimming and writing, and believes both have the same central dangers: envy and competition. “The reality of writing is that it ISN’T like doing a 1500m freestyle. You can’t throw books in the water, let them swim and see which one is the fastest (laughs). So how can you compare different kinds of work? And for someone – a swimmer, or a writer – to only live for the cheering and affirmation, is dangerous. When I was 23, I thought that to be a “great” artist, nothing mattered more than the work you do. If that’s the truth, I’d prefer to just be a “good” artist. My relationship, my family matter more to me than the work… and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since the success of The Slap.
The book’s success meant that Tsiolkas has spent long periods of time away. When travelling he misses Wayne, his partner of 28 years, but the distance from his home country gives him a chance to examine its flaws. In Barracuda, a character called Marguerita declares: “We are all parochial and a narrow-minded, racist and ungenerous, we occupy this land illegitimately”. It’s a bleak view of the contemporary Australian mindset. Does Tsiolkas share it?
“Yes, that’s how I feel about my country at times. I think we’re still trying to come to terms with the legacy of being a colonial settler. How do we acknowledge and honour the violence against the indigenous people? Australia is still very much an outpost, far from everywhere, so that push-pull is constant. At my most optimistic, I feel that Australia is still in the process of defining itself; at my most pessimistic, I feel we keep making the same mistakes and going backwards. It’s hard, with what we’ve been through in the last few years, politically, culturally.” Tsiolkas is the first of his family’s generation to grow up in Australia, and thinks of himself as Australian. His novels however, takes place within an immigrant framework, something he feels will always insinuate itself into his writing. If class and race are intrinsic to his work, so is sexuality. In The Slap, it was brutal, misogynistic and came from a deeply macho place. In Barracuda, Tsiolkas’ protagonist not only struggles with his outsider status as working class and second-generation immigrant – he’s also gay. Danny Kelly, who racks up numerous identities in the book – Dino, Dan, Barracuda – is a teenager when we meet him, but Tsiolkas resisted the urge to give him a coming out story. Deciding to omit it was one thing, but he initially wavered on even writing a gay character.
It’s surprising to hear Tsiolkas say this, as his first novel Loaded, was also about a gay teenager. Writing Danny now is, he says, about context, after the hyper-masculinity of The Slap. “I asked myself if I should do something that’s deliberately queer and in your face, or write something that nothing to do with that world. I was aware I was addressing readers who had found my work through The Slap, but it was all about Danny’s voice. When I was writing him in Scotland, I realised he was homosexual, so I knew I had to just trust that. I didn’t give him a coming-out scene is because it’s so difficult to make that moment different. We’re so used to it, it’s what you expect. I wanted to let the reader fill in the gaps.”
Tsiolkas is keen to point out that this is not a book solely about sport, or ethnicity, or sexuality. He wanted to write a book about failure – specifically an immense failure of character – and how you come back from that. Yes, Danny doesn’t fulfil his dream, which culminates in a very public meltdown, but it is the other events and supporting characters that underpin the book’s intense narrative. “When I started the book, I wrote down the words: ‘This is a novel about how to be a good man” and even though I was scared that it might sound clichéd, I knew that’s what Barracuda was about.”
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on February 1st, 2014