HOUDINI AND THE ES­CAPIST

DE­BUT NOV­EL­IST TRENT DAL­TON LOOKED FOR THE JOY IN SOME GRIM PARTS OF HIS CHILD­HOOD AND FOUND A CRACK­ING AD­VEN­TURES THAT'S QUICKLY BE­COME AN AUS­TRALIAN PUB­LISH­ING PHE­NOM­E­NON

The Morning Bulletin - - WEEKEND | BOOK CLUB - WORDS: JANIN LU­CAS BOY SWAL­LOWS UNI­VERSE Trent Dal­ton FOURTH ES­TATE, $32.95

Trent Dal­ton’s ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of love.

As a five-year-old boy, the two men he adored were his crim­i­nal step­fa­ther and a fam­ily friend named Arthur “Slim” Hal­l­i­day, a con­victed mur­derer and prison es­capee known as The Houdini of Boggo Road.

His fiercest love was for the woman caught up in that dark and vi­o­lent world. Now a con­tented sub­ur­ban grand­mother in her late 60s, she was the first reader of her son’s de­but novel, Boy Swal­lows

Uni­verse, about a boy on a quest to break his mum out of jail.

“Mum is my hero,” the 39-yearold says. “She in­spired the char­ac­ter Frankie Bell and I don’t have enough words in the book to go on about all the things my mum sur­vived, things that other peo­ple would have suc­cumbed to.

“My mum went away for two years just like Frankie Bell does in the book.

“Every­thing that hap­pened in that pas­sage in the book with the kid want­ing to see his mum is pretty close to the bone for me.”

For about a year, the Walk­ley Award-win­ning jour­nal­ist sat down at his com­puter af­ter his daugh­ters’ bed­time each night to fun­nel his child­hood into a work of fic­tion.

The star of Boy Swal­lows

Uni­verse would be 12-year-old Eli Bell, a friend of the real-life Slim Hal­l­i­day who es­caped from Boggo Road twice in the 1940s be­fore be­ing con­victed of the 1952 mur­der of 23-year-old Gold Coast taxi driver Athol McCowan.

Eli’s heroin-dealer step­fa­ther, Lyle, is moulded from the man Dal­ton’s mother loved.

“The first mem­ory I have, I’m a boy, I must be about four years old, and I’m sit­ting on this lounge in the outer west­ern sub­urbs of Bris­bane,” he says.

“It’s a brown leather lounge and I’m in a brown and yel­low shirt and I see a freckle on my thumb — the freckle comes through the book — and I look up and to the left of me is this man with red hair.

“He’s got tat­toos and mus­cles, and I turn to him and I say, ‘I love you, Dad.’ And he turns to me and says, ‘Mate, I’m not your dad, but I love you too.’ That man was gen­uinely the first man that I ever loved and he was prob­a­bly in many ways my mum’s true love, the love of her life …

“The dif­fi­cult part of fall­ing in love with that guy was that he had a pretty shady past and he had some pretty dark ac­tiv­i­ties that he got up to in his down time.

“What do you do when you fall in love with a crim­i­nal?

“That’s ba­si­cally what my mum had to ask her­self.”

When Dal­ton would ask about his step­fa­ther’s as­so­ciates — “Who’s that guy, who’s that guy, what did he do?” — the an­swer would be, “Trent I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“I got that a lot. Ul­ti­mately the whole thing is me look­ing for an­swers, an­swers that never came,” he says.

When his step­fa­ther was taken away by po­lice, “this guy I loved so much kind of dis­ap­peared from my life”. “A lot of the book is me just pro­cess­ing things in my head about what the hell hap­pened to that guy,” he says.

“The things that hap­pened to the kid, Eli, were very fa­mil­iar to me and my broth­ers and I.”

Dal­ton’s three older broth­ers and pro­tec­tors, Joel, Ben and Jesse, are “crow­barred” into one won­der­ful older brother in Boy

Swal­lows Uni­verse: Au­gust Bell, who is mute and writes prophetic mes­sages in the air.

Au­gust’s piv­otal pre­dic­tion, “Your end is a dead blue wren,” is at the core of the magic Dal­ton has con­jured from a brief, pro­found and grim time in his life.

A red tele­phone in a se­cret un­der­ground room be­hind a wardrobe in Eli and Au­gust’s house is one of the mys­ti­cal touches in the novel, but this, too, is a Dal­ton child­hood mem­ory, a sur­real dis­cov­ery his broth­ers made in their step­fa­ther’s home.

“All I’m do­ing in the 407 pages is fan­ta­sis­ing about who’s on the end of that phone line,” he says.

“I’m very in­ter­ested in the child brain and the way it pro­cesses its trauma.

“Across a pe­riod of about 15 years, I kind of saw a mess of drug abuse, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, al­co­hol abuse and anx­i­ety.

“I’ve al­ways won­dered, some things I’ve seen grow­ing up, what did it do to you and how have I pro­cessed that?”

Dal­ton knew Slim Hal­l­i­day in the early 1980s as a fa­ther fig­ure and source of wis­dom to his fam­ily.

He re­mem­bers be­ing around age five, perched on Hal­l­i­day’s lap, steer­ing a rusted old four­wheel-drive.

“He’d let me turn the wheel and

“HE’D LET ME TURN THE WHEEL AND HONK THE HORN. I LOVED THE GUY. HE WAS THE FUNNIEST, KINDEST OLD BLOKE. TO ME HE WAS THIS MYTH­I­CAL GUY THAT MY BROTH­ERS WOULD WHIS­PER ABOUT WHEN WE WERE PLAY­ING IN THE BACK YARD.”

honk the horn. I loved the guy. He was the funniest, kindest old bloke,” Dal­ton says.

“He was a man who dropped around the house of this guy my mum was in love with.

“To me he was this myth­i­cal guy that my broth­ers would whis­per about when we were play­ing in the back yard.”

When his broth­ers told him Hal­l­i­day had killed a man, a lit­tle boy’s fevered imag­i­na­tion saw it like this: “Slim used to carry around a fine-tooth comb to slick back his hair. I pic­tured him killing the taxi driver by lean­ing over into the front seat and slic­ing the taxi driver’s neck with a fine-tooth comb, which is just bizarre.”

Sev­eral decades later, as a writer for The Week­end Aus­tralian Magazine, Dal­ton was in The Courier-Mail ar­chives re­search­ing a fea­ture yarn about leg­endary crick­eter and com­men­ta­tor Bill Lawry. The Lawry file wasn’t far from the five fold­ers de­tail­ing the his­tory of Queens­land’s most no­to­ri­ous jail breaker.

It sparked a thread to the novel: What if he did get to carry on a friend­ship with Slim? “He had a lot of wis­dom to of­fer and he of­fered it to my mum in some dark times,” Dal­ton says.

“The novel ex­plores the ques­tion: Is good wis­dom still valid if it comes from evil men?”

In 1940, Hal­l­i­day hauled him­self over the Boggo Road perime­ter wall us­ing an 8m knot­ted rope fas­tened to a grap­pling hook made of two pieces of wood. He was cap­tured two weeks later in a car chase at Ca­bool­ture. The sec­ond time, in 1946, he and two other dan­ger­ous in­mates es­caped over a nearby sec­tion of the wall us­ing a piece of clothes­line se­cured to a pipe that had been shaped into a hook over a gas stove flame. A huge man­hunt tracked down Hal­l­i­day and one of his ac­com­plices four days later; the third fugi­tive was back be­hind bars a cou­ple of weeks af­ter the es­cape.

Hal­l­i­day had been a free man for three years when he shot him­self in the leg with a hand­gun in a vi­o­lent strug­gle with a Syd­ney store­keeper he was try­ing to rob. He was cap­tured in a shootout and po­lice al­leged he had used the same .45 Colt pis­tol to bash Athol McCowan to death in his taxi on the Gold Coast a month ear­lier.

“On the Boggo Road prison tour they will tell you there is a big ques­tion mark over whether he com­mit­ted the mur­der,” Dal­ton says. “Slim al­ways main­tained his in­no­cence. That said, I’m not go­ing to be the guy de­fend­ing Slim Hal­l­i­day.”

One of sev­eral more failed es­cape at­tempts earned him 14 days in the jail’s in­fa­mous Black Peter un­der­ground soli­tary con­fine­ment cell in the sum­mer of 1953. Later, he could move around in the ex­er­cise yard only in a cage, in­side which a pris­oner was al­lowed once a week for a game of chess. Hal­l­i­day was paroled in 1976, at age 66, and died in 1987.

“It was pretty me­dieval, some of the treat­ment he got. For him to come out, by the time I knew him, as he did, he had some se­ri­ous for­ti­tude, some in­cred­i­ble in­ner strength,” Dal­ton says.

“That’s where the uni­verse stuff comes from in my book.

“He used to read about the stars and gal­ax­ies. He would put his mind up there. He would go on these wan­ders, as he called them, through the gal­ax­ies. He would re­move him­self from that place.

“That’s what the kid in the book is do­ing all the time. He’s re­mov­ing him­self from his world and he’s try­ing to process his trauma.”

In the novel Eli and Au­gust are re­united with their fa­ther, as the Dal­ton boys were when the law caught up with their stand-in dad and their mother.

Dal­ton’s fa­ther, Noel, who died sev­eral years ago, was the same hard-drink­ing vo­ra­cious reader liv­ing among tow­ers of books in a Bris­bane hous­ing com­mis­sion house in Boy Swal­lows Uni­verse.

“He loved books so much he never put them down,” Dal­ton says. “It’s a dan­ger­ous thing if you’re truly happy with just a book and a rolled cigarette. If you weren’t into books in my house, you might as well leave home … there were books ev­ery­where.

“If I think about him longer than a minute I’ll be a weep­ing mess be­cause he was truly the most amaz­ing dad. He gen­uinely had his demons. I thought he messed up with the love of his life, my mum, and that was his fail­ing. He loved her so much.” Dal­ton and his mum agree Boy

Swal­lows Uni­verse is a 50-50 mix of fact and fan­tasy. A big im­pe­tus came from a pro­found sense of peace a cou­ple of Christ­mases ago on Bri­bie Is­land.

“My mum was hav­ing this ex­is­ten­tial mo­ment as we were pack­ing some Christ­mas presents into the back of her lit­tle car and she sees my daugh­ter danc­ing near some trees,” Dal­ton says.

“She turned to me and said, ‘Trent, I wouldn’t change a sin­gle bit of it. I wouldn’t change it be­cause it gets to this point.’ ”

When the novel was fin­ished, “she was the first per­son I sent it to”.

“I told her, ‘Look, if you don’t like any of this, it goes straight in the bin, that’s it, don’t say an­other word’,” Dal­ton says.

“I was work­ing away at work one day and she called my mo­bile and said, ‘Trent, it’s beau­ti­ful and I think so many peo­ple can get so much out of it.’

“That’s the great­est gift she could give me. I wanted to do it in the right way so I tried to change some­thing pretty dark and ter­ri­ble into some­thing beau­ti­ful.”

As a par­ent of two girls aged 11 and 9, Dal­ton has had those same ‘what if?’ mo­ments, and it was pow­er­ful in­spi­ra­tion for his novel: What if he hadn’t had the great for­tune of meet­ing his fu­ture wife, fel­low jour­nal­ist Fiona Franz­mann, at Bris­bane News magazine in his first re­port­ing job?

“Some­times I would think about that no­tion of what if it all went a dif­fer­ent way,” he says.

“I could have done a mil­lion dif­fer­ent things and I wouldn’t have these two beau­ti­ful daugh­ters, I wouldn’t have this beau­ti­ful wife.

“When I would think about that, dead­set my fin­gers would tin­gle and I’d start writ­ing.”

Dal­ton cher­ishes the praise he’s re­ceived for his fic­tional char­ac­ters be­cause they em­body the peo­ple he loves most.

A global pub­lish­ing deal in the high six fig­ures — mas­sive for a first-time Aussie au­thor — is tak­ing the Queens­lan­der’s book to 12 other lan­guages as pub­lisher HarperCollins fields a flood of queries from in­ter­na­tional and do­mes­tic play­ers about the film and tele­vi­sion rights.

Be­fore he wrote any­thing, the novel was a head­line in the journo’s mind: Boy swal­lows uni­verse. When those three words came to him, he was elec­tri­cally charged by them.

“It is es­sen­tially a way I have hon­estly tried to ap­proach life: Just take it in. Don’t just write about one thing, take it all in. Take every last as­pect, take all the dark, take all the light, take the whole uni­verse in. That’s what the kid in the book is do­ing, just go­ing for it. That can be dan­ger­ous, but I love when any­one does that, just owns it. That’s what helps us sur­vive.”

PO­LICE OF­FI­CER BILL CRONAU WITH BOGGO ROAD ESCAPEES ARTHUR “SLIM” HAL­L­I­DAY AND DERWENT ARKINSTALL AF­TER THEIR CAP­TURE IN 1946. BE­LOW: TRENT DAL­TON, AGED 8.

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