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April 23, 2019

Trent Dalton's Playlist for His Novel "Boy Swallows Universe"

Boy Swallows Universe

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Trent Dalton's novel Boy Swallows Universe is a smart and surprising debut.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Dalton’s splashy, stellar debut makes the typical coming-of-age novel look bland by comparison…In less adept hands, these antics might descend into whimsy, but Dalton’s broadly observant eye, ability to temper pathos with humor, and thorough understanding of the mechanics of plot prevent the novel from breaking into sparkling pieces…This is an outstanding debut."

In his own words, here is Trent Dalton's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Boy Swallows Universe:

My book is one great big soul cough. In the words of Robert Smith, pull out my heart and feed it to anyone. It is absolutely essential, I believe, that a writer goes as deep as they can into the darkest cobwebbed corridors of their soul and drag up something that is true and meaningful to the reader who is investing all that reading time in your book. My favourite musicians are physically incapable of walking creatively into any other corridors beyond those cobwebbed ones. It was these kind of musicians I went to for my book. These courageous souls who put it all on the line. Put everything up for assessment by the public and say, “Make of it what you will, this is what I had to do”. It was these people playing when I wrote, it was these people who emerged in my pages. And I’m so glad they turned up. They are the sound of Boy Swallows Universe.

Ruby Tuesday, Rolling Stones

A pop-rock masterpiece and an absolute tentpole song for Boy Swallows Universe, threading through the narrative, linking our hero, Eli Bell, to his beloved mum, Frankie. In what many consider the most heart-wrenching moment in the book, Eli draws on the power of love and music and Jagger-Richards to save his mum in her darkest hour. It’s no coincidence my beloved real life mum adores this song and I’ve sung it many times with her in late night drinking sessions listening to Melanie Safka, who does the most sublime cover of this song. I came to the Stones through my dear old man, a tattooed mud crab fisherman bibliophile durry-smoking rock ‘n’ roll superstar bound to a Housing Commission Brisbane kitchen raising four boys in the 1990s on his own. There was one job on this planet that suited him perfectly: lead singer of the Rolling Stones. Sadly, the job was taken.

Help, The Beatles

The first man I ever loved was a dangerously successful heroin dealer who cared a great deal for my three older brothers and I. He went away to prison for quite some time and I wished all through my teens that he might just turn up one day on my doorstep. But things like that only happen in books. Whenever I saw Help-era Lennon I’d think of this guy because I thought this guy looked like John. I have four favourite Beatle members and John’s one of them. The love I had for this ginger-haired man in my real life who looked like John is all through my book and so are The Beatles, my dear Fabs. They make me believe in magic those boys. They are kinda the closest thing that I have to religiosity. I believe in Beatles. What they were shooting for, the optimism, the ambition, the unity they found for us all, sometimes through their own disunity. I’m yet to find a better example of destiny – providence, maybe – than those four boys finding each other. Lennon gives so much of his heart away in this song, masks it in pure pop perfection. But it’s the cry of a desperate man, the same cry Eli Bell is making in my book. Won’t you please – please – help me. I still get angry sometimes when I dwell on the way Lennon was taken from us. He gave us so much of his heart and that generosity was his undoing. That, to me, is the saddest moment in rock ‘n’ roll. Oh, to hear just one more new one. Maybe his take on the 21st century. Maybe his take on Trump, Brexit, American Idol. Just imagine.

Can’t Hardly Wait, The Replacements

I really love my wife, Fiona. This excerpt from my book explains what that feels like…

Details, Slim. She has two creases running from the right corner of her mouth when she smiles. She eats chopped up carrots for lunch on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she eats celery sticks.

She wore a band T-shirt for The Replacements to work two days ago and at lunchtime I took the train into the city and bought a Replacements cassette tape. It was called Pleased to Meet Me. I listened to that tape 16 times in one night and then I went to her desk the next morning to tell her that the last song on side two of the tape, Can’t Hardly Wait, was the perfect marriage of lead singer Paul Westerberg’s raw garage punk rock early days with his burgeoning love of celebratory love pop more reminiscent of BJ Thomas’s “Hooked on a Feeling”. I didn’t tell her that the song is, in fact, the perfect marriage of my heart and my mind which can’t stop beating and thinking for her, the sonic embodiment of the urgency in my adoration for her, the embodiment of the impatience she has put in me, how she makes me will time to quicken, hurry up, hurry up, so she can walk through the door, so she can blink like she does, so she can laugh with the other crime writers in her pod, so she can look over here – over here, Caitlyn Spies – some 150 metres all the way over to nobody me and the dead guy in the crossword pod.

“Really?” she said. “I hate that song.”

Then she opened a drawer beneath her desk. She handed me a cassette tape.

The Replacements’ Let it Be

The band’s third album. “Track nine,” she said. “Gary’s Got a Boner”. She said the word ‘boner’ like she might have said the word ‘lavender’. She does that, Slim. She is magic, Slim. Every word she says comes out as the words “lavender” and “luminescence” and “longing” and … and … and what’s that other L-word, Slim? You know the one they’re always talking about. You know that word, Slim?

Alive, Pearl Jam

I once got the chance to sit down and interview Stone Gossard, Pearl Jam guitarist and co-founder, writer of Black, writer of an amazing solo album called Bayleaf, writer of Alive. At the end of the interview, I had this awkward moment where I said to Stone: “Ummm… I wrote you a letter… actually it’s a 15-page handwritten letter addressed to the band … it’s got a title… “Thanks for 15 years of Music (the band was 15 years old at that time).” I stressed to Stone that he was not at all obliged to take the letter but if he was to take it he might read a lot inside it about what the band has meant to me over the years. I mean, seriously, it’s quite embarrassing how much I love this band and don’t get me started on the adventures I’ve had surrounding my worship of them. I was deeply worried Stone might go, “Piss off crazy man”, but he did the complete opposite. He says, “Are you kidding? I’d love to read it.” So I handed it to him and my lasting memory from that extraordinary interaction was the mighty Stone Gossard walking down the aisles of Brisbane’s Boondall Entertainment Centre green rooms (they would take the stage there in a matter of hours) and stopping to talk to members of his support act, The Kings of Leon. As he laughed with Caleb Followill he folded the door-stopping envelope that carried my 15-page letter and placed it carefully in the back pocket of his blue jeans. In the background to all this was the sound of Eddie Vedder doing his sound check. He was singing Love Boat Captain. “Because to the universe, I don’t mean a thing, but there’s just one word I still believe.” Love.

The Power of Love, Huey Lewis and the News

There’s so much unspoken Back to the Future DNA in Boy Swallows Universe. There’s the love of time as a concept, first and foremost, then a hundred hidden other things, but largely the fact that it is imperative upon all humans to live their lives with the enthusiasm of Marty McFly. His unflappable enthusiasm carries him through the whole wild time travel adventure and it’s his enthusiasm that asks more of the loved ones around him who he knows could have had so much more were it not for some decisions they made over the course of time. I used to pretend to be Marty McFly when I was eight years old playing air guitar and singing Johnny B. Goode on top of my grandparents concrete backyard septic tank. I’m 39 years old now and a father of two girls and I’ve never stopped pretending to be Marty McFly. “I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud,” Huey Lewis tells Marty’s band, The Pinheads, in a priceless cameo. That doesn’t stop Marty McFly. Nothing can put his fire out. That’s like Eli Bell in my book.

Heart of Glass, Blondie

Seriously, if you like music, I really reckon you might like my book. It’s filled with music references. A reader in Australia was so chuffed with all the music references that she started her own “Boy Swallows Universe” playlist on Spotify. It was one of the coolest gestures I’ve yet seen as far as feedback goes for that book. There’s Frankie Valli in that playlist, there’s David Cassidy and Buddy Holly and Led Zeppelin and The Carpenters and Australia’s glorious Cold Chisel and so much more. There’s 50 songs she put on that playlist and they all link back to Boy Swallows Universe. Here’s where Heart of Glass links back to the book…

These were Mum’s Debbie Harry Heart of Glass years. People say junk makes you look horrific; that too much heroin tears your hair out, leaves scabs all over your face and your wrists from your anxious fingers and your anxious fingernails that keep filling with blood and rolled skin. People say the gear sucks the calcium out of your teeth and your bones, leaves you couch-bound like a rotting corpse. And I’ve seen all that. But I also thought junk made Mum look beautiful. She was thin and pale white and blonde but not as blonde as Debbie Harry. But just as pretty. I thought junk made Mum look like an angel. She had this fixed 24-7 dazed look on her face, there but not there, like Harry in that Heart of Glass clip, like something from a dream, moving in the space between sleeping and waking, between life and death, but sparkling somehow, like she had a mirror ball permanently spinning in the pupils of her sapphire eyes. And I remember thinking that’s how an angel really would look if they found themselves in suburban Darra, south-east Queensland, down all this way from heaven. Such an angel really would be dazed like that, puzzled, glassy, flapping her wings as she studied all those dishes piling up in the sink, all those cars passing by the house beyond the cracks in the curtains.

There’s a golden orb-weaver spider that builds a web so intricate and perfect outside my bedroom window that it looks like a single snowflake magnified a thousand times. The orb-weaver spider sits in the middle of the web like it’s parachuting sideways, suspended in the quest it keeps wanting to finish without needing to know the reason why, blown but not beaten by wind and rain and afternoon South-east Queensland summer storms so strong they fell power poles. Mum was the orb-weaver spider in those years. And she was the web and she was the butterfly, too, the blue tiger butterfly with sapphire wings being eaten alive by the spider.

End of the Night, The Doors

This is my old man drinking too much booze and lost in a lights-out haze of Morrison melancholy and he’s staring into a TV that’s only playing tuned out white noise static. He’s thinking about my mum and how much he loves her and how he messed it all up and he looks like Martin Sheen at the start of Apocalypse Now and I love him so much. The End was always The Doors’ go to epic of existential crisis but, for me, End of the Night is more spine-chilling and more truthful about the darkness in the night and in us all.

Song to the Siren, This Mortal Coil

Truly transcendental cover of the Tim Buckley tune and a reminder of every person I’ve ever loved and the people I care deeply about who I’ve loved and then lost, namely my dear old man. The greatest guitarist I ever did see, John Frusciante, also does a killer version of this song where he lets his whole wild and dark and glorious life bleed through those perfect words: “Long afloat on shipless oceans, I did all my best to smile”. I love the siren myth and the idea that there are some days on earth where it feels like you wouldn’t mind if they took you down into the deep green sea.

Plainsong, The Cure

There’s so many moments in my book where Eli and his wondrous older brother, Gus, are tapping in to some grand and mystical space beyond what they might consider earth and existence. Eli meets the girl of his dreams and his mind starts exploding with all these visions of distant planets and supernovas and stardust-popping galactic events and that’s what it is to be young and in love. Every time Eli sees this mysterious girl, Caitlin Spies, it’s like he’s walked into a different universe where the only thing he can hear is Plainsong by The Cure. That’s how big he’s going with this girl. I got married to a Peter Gabriel song but I should have been married to this song. The day felt closer to this song. Quite wonderfully, my older brother jagged some tickets in a very tough ballot to see The Cure play Disintegration from start to finish in a one-off series of gigs in the Sydney Opera House. They will likely open with this song, as per track list, and I will likely lose my marbles.

Trent Dalton and Boy Swallows Universe links:

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Sydney Morning Herald review
Washington Post review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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