BOY SWALLOWS UNIVERSE
By Trent Dalton
Hidden behind a sliding-glass door in a built-in wardrobe of Trent Dalton’s childhood home was a secret room, and a red phone. Dalton was 6 when the space was revealed to him by one of his three brothers. Many years later, he realized this was his family’s escape room.
This incident is recounted as fiction in Dalton’s debut novel, “Boy Swallows Universe.” His three brothers are embodied in one — a mute savant named August — and Dalton’s alter ego is the 12-year-old Eli Bell. The fabricated setting is the same as his biographical one: a suburb of Brisbane, the sprawling city in the eastern Australian state of Queensland. Eli’s mother, like Dalton’s, is a drug addict who is romantically involved with a career criminal. Lyle is a second-tier heroin dealer, which explains the escape room. (Dalton and his mother agree the book is a “50-50” mix of fact and fantasy.)
Dalton is a celebrated magazine journalist in Australia, known for his lyrical prose, so it comes as a shock to learn of the sometimes brutal circumstances in which he was raised. This coming-of-age story begins in 1985 and ends a few years later with Eli’s budding career as a newspaper reporter. In between, while seeking to avenge a murder, Eli infiltrates a women’s prison on Christmas Day, uncovers an organized crime syndicate and falls in love with an older woman. Yet while there’s plenty of action, and much of it suspenseful, this is not a straightforward crime caper. The red phone comes to play an important role: In a streak of magical realism, a mysterious voice on the other end of the receiver dispenses cryptic yet prescient advice to Eli.
Somehow this device is not annoying. Eli is, in his own words, “a rolling tumbleweed of confusion and despair,” and the phone is a tool by which his mind makes sense of trauma. Like all children, Eli must live with the consequences of decisions made by others. His father, who tried to drive him and August off the road when they were little boys, is largely absent, or else consumed by alcohol-fueled rage. His mother is frequently out of it.
All this sounds grim. But Eli, who notices everything and speaks in a kind of hyperactive journalese, is still somehow open to the world, and frequently amusing as a result. His prized possession is an Atari games console bought from a classified ad placed by a family “who had recently purchased a Commodore 64 desktop computer and no longer needed their Atari, which they sold to us for $36.” The anxieties of adolescence are persuasively conveyed — the big ones, like drug dealing, but also the more trivial ones, like talking to girls.
One can’t help quibbling that the story seems designed with an eye to its own presumed dramatic adaptation. (Dalton’s résumé includes a few screenplays.) The violence is occasionally too much. Toward the end, a plot point involving severed limbs is downright fanciful.
Such florid unpleasantries feel all the more gratuitous because the most compelling aspects of “Boy Swallows Universe” come from real life. Eli’s constant companion happens to be a historical figure: the legendary Australian prison escapee Arthur “Slim” Halliday, who was convicted of murdering a cabdriver in the ’50s, but always maintained his innocence. Later in life, he became a friend of the Dalton family. Early in the novel Halliday teaches the teenage Eli a lesson he will never forget: “An adult mind can take an adult man anywhere he wants to go.” If that scene is even partly true to life, the reader has much to thank Slim for. In this thrilling novel, Trent Dalton takes us along for the ride.