An Australian teen aspires to reassemble his broken home, bust a drug ring, and decrypt his brother’s odd pronouncements.
That’s a lot for a 12-year-old living outside of Brisbane to take on; and this, Dalton’s debut novel, also feels like a case of reach exceeding grasp. But it has the virtue of an earnest and bright narrator in Eli, who, as the story opens in 1985, is living with his mother and her boyfriend, Lyle, who are scraping out a living as small-time heroin dealers. His older brother, August, prefers to communicate by writing in the air with his finger, and his air-scribbles are generally koanlike and inscrutable: “Your end is a dead blue wren,” “Boy swallows universe,” and such like. The closest thing to a normal person in Eli's life is Slim, an elderly small-time criminal whose knack for prison escapes in his youth has become the stuff of legend. After a falling-out with rival dealers, Lyle is killed, mom is sent to prison, and Eli loses a finger, leaving the brothers to live unhappily with their alcoholic father. Dalton’s novel is a kind of picaresque, built around comic scenes amid the grim setting, involving Eli’s taking cues from Slim in the ensuing years to either break into things (such as the prison where mom is sentenced) or break out of his desultory existence by angling his way into a journalism internship, where he’s determined to reveal the truth about the esteemed businessman who’s also a drug kingpin. “A confident sneak can make his own magic,” Eli explains. But the magical elements promised in the novel’s early pages, mostly via August’s non sequiturs, either get abandoned or turn out to be relatively pedantic matters of interpretation.
A likable debut that trades its early high-flown ambitions for dramatic but familiar coming-of-age fare.