A com­ing-of-age story filled with won­der, heart­break

The Buffalo News - - GUSTOSUNDAY: BOOKS - By Ellen Mor­ton Mor­ton is a writer in Los An­ge­les.

Boy Swal­lows Uni­verse By Trent Dalton Harper. 464 pp. $26.99

Set in Aus­tralia, “Boy Swal­lows Uni­verse” is a sprawl­ing novel about a thought­ful boy’s pre­ma­ture jour­ney into man­hood. At age 12, Eli Bell has grasped the last idyl­lic strands of in­no­cence. He is cat­a­pulted re­luc­tantly out of his youth af­ter he dis­cov­ers the depth of his mom and step­dad’s in­volve­ment with lo­cal drug traf­fick­ers. The only op­tion for Eli and his brother, Au­gust, is to move in with their es­tranged fa­ther, an al­co­holic whose mind “op­er­ates with as much or­der and pre­dictabil­ity as the in­sides of our lounge room vinyl bean­bag.”

As a nar­ra­tor, Eli is a ca­sual philoso­pher who takes in the glory and consequence of the small­est quo­tid­ian de­tails, and his acute ob­ser­va­tions are of­ten re­fracted through his sin­gu­lar lens of farce and sur­re­al­ism. When

wit­ness­ing a neigh­bor­hood bully stab a lo­cal priest’s car with a samu­rai sword, for ex­am­ple, he sees “an old war­rior about to rit­u­ally end the life of his best friend, or his fa­vorite Aus­tralian sub­ur­ban get-about mo­tor­car.”

Any pre­teen might get up to such pre­pos­ter­ous mis­chief, but Eli’s high jinks have much higher stakes and po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic con­se­quences. His first brush with the heroin trade sets him on an in­escapable path, a night­mare that fol­lows him to the edge of adult­hood.

As he turns 18, he dreams of be­com­ing a jour­nal­ist, he falls in love, he strug­gles to un­der­stand what it is to be a good man, and still the mon­sters of Eli’s child­hood haunt him.

Eli keeps his sense of hu­mor but the years of his ado­les­cence pass, and he gets bat­tered by life and cir­cum­stance; in­evitably some of his fan­ci­ful whimsy gives way to anger and a bleak prag­ma­tism. His loss of in­no­cence comes in nar­ra­tive sucker punches, plot turns that evoke stom­ach-clench­ing ter­ror and sick­en­ing grief.

What makes th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences so af­fect­ing is they hap­pen to Eli and Au­gust, two im­mensely and im­me­di­ately lov­able char­ac­ters. Al­most from the first page, Eli’s lol­lop­ing de­scrip­tions re­veal each brother’s stark in­di­vid­u­al­ity, but also a com­pelling fra­ter­nal de­vo­tion and un­der­stand­ing. They re­main each other’s only con­stants through­out a young adult­hood lit­tered with trau­mas large and small.

“Boy Swal­lows Uni­verse” hyp­no­tizes you with won­der, and then ham­mers you with heart­break. The events of Eli’s life are of­ten fa­tal and tragic, but fate and tragedy do not over­power the story. Eli’s re­mark­ably po­etic voice and his as­ton­ish­ingly open heart take the day. They en­able him to carve out the best of what’s pos­si­ble from the worst of what is, which is the mir­a­cle that makes this novel mar­velous.

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