Australian novelist Tsiolkas (The Slap, 2008, etc.) serves up a bracing poolside critique of Antipodean mores.
The trope of athletic contest as coming-of-age backdrop is an old one, though more seen in film than literature since the days of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Tsiolkas’ latest takes an athletically gifted young man—Danny here, Dan there, Barracuda everywhere, thanks to his habit of churning up the water and devouring his opponents—across two decades. As we find him at first, Danny, a working-class scholarship student, is on the loutish side, swimming for a school that he calls “Cunts College,” a place for the rich and privileged and not the likes of him. Only dimly self-aware, Danny flourishes under the tutelage of a Hungarian-born mentor who had coached the team "to first in every school sports meet of the last seven years.” The fact of Coach Torma’s foreignness is important, because everyone in Australia, it seems, is from someplace else, and immigration and exile underlie the Greek-descended author’s story. In time, Danny, now a grown-up Dan, will be someplace else, too, for though he is Olympic material, he fails to live up to his promise for reasons that move the story along, taking him to far-off Glasgow and into the complexities of sexuality, so torn up about events that he can't bring himself to enter the water. Dan’s struggle to resolve the too-abundant conflicts that beset him, including hinted-at legal trouble, makes us sorry to see the once-golden boy stumble and fall. Still, he finds redemption of a kind in his homeland, which remains welcoming even though Dan/Danny has only an untutored, reflexive appreciation for its moderate politics; at the end, as Tsiolkas has one accidentally wise character note, “[w]e’re lucky here, Danny, this country just sails on, impervious to the shit that the rest of the world is drowning in. Jesus, no wonder any bastard who gets on a boat wants to come here.”
A tough, unsparing, closely observed and decidedly R-rated look at the many challenges and disappointments that life brings, told against settings that American readers will find at once familiar and exotic.