24 July 2018
“Lyle says he approaches a drug deal in the same way he approaches Mum when she’s in a bad mood. Stay on your toes. Stay alert. Don’t let them stand too close to the kitchen knives. Be flexible, patient, adaptable. The buyer/angry Mum is always right.”
Oliver Twist meets The Godfather. Those were the first books that came to mind. Films and TV that came to mind were Breaking Bad, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Sopranos, and possibly a bit of Stephen King. But it’s 100% Trent Dalton, and what an absolute legend he is! This is bound to be at the top of my favourites list for a long time.
“Nothing connects a city quite like South-East Asian heroin.”
This is based on his life, his upbringing, his alcoholic dad, drug-affected mother and drug-dealer boyfriend ("Lyle" of the opening quotation), and the whole violent, vicious drug scene where he grew up near Brisbane with three brothers. The book, however, has only Eli telling the story and he has only one brother. This is a novel, not a memoir, although if you listen to the author's interviews, you could be excused for thinking it is, and I'm scared to think how many of these life-threatening experiences may have been his!
Eli Bell is 12, one year younger than August “Gus” Bell, who doesn’t speak. We learn about the harrowing near-drowning that triggered that, and as for the rest, I really don’t know where to start. It is a fabulous coming-of-age story like no other than I can think of. Trent Dalton is already an acclaimed feature writer and journalist* (see below), but this is way beyond that.
He lets the character of Slim Halliday (who was a real-life convicted criminal) teach young Eli how to deal with whatever life throws at you. I know him only as the character in the book, although Dalton knew him in real life. In the book, he was known for having survived Black Peter, the name for the solitary confinement most prisons call the hole.
“Slim says half of his Boggo Road prison mates would have died after a week in Black Peter because half of any prison population, and any major city of the world for that matter, is filled with adult men with child minds. But an adult mind can take an adult man anywhere he wants to go.
. . .
‘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.’”
He would take himself fishing, mentally, catch fish, clean them, cook them, roll a smoke, watch the sunset and pass the time so busily he was surprised to see the end of the day. But, when he had an hour in the sun in the exercise yard, he learned how to slow down time and stretch it out to feel like several hours. What a great skill.
Another trick he had made me think instantly of The Memory Code by Lynne Kelly about memory systems in civilisations around the world.
“Slim says a good way for me to remember the small details of my life is to associate moments and visions with things on my person or things in my regular waking life that I see and smell and touch often. Body things, bedroom things, kitchen things. This way I will have two reminders of any given detail for the price of one.”
Slim would choose marks and scars and spots on his body as his memory points the way we might collect souvenirs to remind us of something or the Australian Aboriginal memory code actually stores memories in places and trees and landscape.
“He’d thumb the peaks and valleys of his knuckles and they wold take him there, to the hills of the Gold Coast hinterland, take him all the way to Springbrook Falls, and the cold steel prison bed frame of cell D9 would become a water-worn limestone rock and the prison hole’s cold concrete floor beneath his bare feet summer-warm water to dip his toes into . . .”
Dalton can write the longest sentences, and they are always just the right length for me. His timing is great, his characters are wonderful and terrifying and the story is warm, and scary and thrilling and believable. Eli adores his parents and his mum’s boyfriend and his “best friend” Slim. He is basically a good kid, but he does get up to more than innocent childhood mischief, and no wonder.
We meet all of these people, not the least of whom is his mute brother Gus who writes in the air with his finger, which Eli reads easily, even backwards sometimes. Gus likes to indicate he sees the future – we’re not so sure, but something is going on there. The chapters begin with three-word titles - “Boy Writes Words” and “Boy Loses Luck” and “Boy Parts Sea” – the kind of three-word summary an editor he eventually works for demands a writer use to describe a story.
The drug lords, the heavies with knives and machetes, the really, really, REALLY scary dudes – these are all part and parcel of growing up for young Eli Bell. And apparently, a lot of it, including the seeing Mum in prison on Christmas Day were all part of life for young Trent Dalton. I’m so glad he discovered that he was a boy who could write words, and not just in the air.
Beautifully written. Memorable characters, places you can see and smell, and that sense of time and space you had when you were a kid. They’re all here.
Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Australia for the preview copy from which I’ve quoted. I haven’t begun to do this justice.
My Goodreads review included links to two podcasts of interviews with the author. He comes across as irrepressibly cheerful and enthusiastic. What a life! What a story!
*“Podcast guest: Trent Dalton
Trent Dalton is a staff writer for The Weekend Australian Magazine and former assistant editor of The Courier Mail. He’s a two-time winner of a Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism, a three-time winner of a Kennedy Award for Excellence in NSW Journalism and a four-time winner of the national News Awards Features Journalist of the Year.”
My Goodreads review includes a photograph of Trent Dalton at the Better Reading podcast.