Boy Swallows Universe

Boy Swallows Universe

by Trent Dalton


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Boy Swallows Universe hypnotizes you with wonder, and then hammers you with heartbreak. . . . 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.” -Washington Post

A "thrilling" (New York Times Book Review) novel of love, crime, magic, fate and a boy’s coming of age, set in 1980s Australia and infused with the originality, charm, pathos, and heart of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Eli Bell’s life is complicated. His father is lost, his mother is in jail, and his stepdad is a heroin dealer. The most steadfast adult in Eli’s life is Slim—a notorious felon and national record-holder for successful prison escapes—who watches over Eli and August, his silent genius of an older brother.

Exiled far from the rest of the world in Darra, a neglected suburb populated by Polish and Vietnamese refugees, this twelve-year-old boy with an old soul and an adult mind is just trying to follow his heart, learn what it takes to be a good man, and train for a glamorous career in journalism. Life, however, insists on throwing obstacles in Eli’s path—most notably Tytus Broz, Brisbane’s legendary drug dealer.

But the real trouble lies ahead. Eli is about to fall in love, face off against truly bad guys, and fight to save his mother from a certain doom—all before starting high school.

A story of brotherhood, true love, family, and the most unlikely of friendships, Boy Swallows Universe is the tale of an adolescent boy on the cusp of discovering the man he will be. Powerful and kinetic, Trent Dalton’s debut is sure to be one of the most heartbreaking, joyous and exhilarating novels you will experience.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062898104
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/02/2019
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 110,194
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

Trent Dalton is an award-winning journalist at The Weekend Australian Magazine. His writing includes several short and feature-length film screenplays. He was nominated for a 2010 AFI Best Short Fiction screenplay award for his latest film, Glenn Owen Dodds, which also won the prestigious International Prix Canal award at the world's largest short film festival, the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. Dalton's debut feature film screenplay, In the Silence, is currently in production.

Read an Excerpt


Boy Writes Words

Your end is a dead blue wren.

'Did you see that, Slim?'

'See what?'


Your end is a dead blue wren. No doubt about it. Your. End. No doubt about it. Is. A. Dead. Blue. Wren.

* * *

The crack in Slim's windscreen looks like a tall and armless stickman bowing to royalty. The crack in Slim's windscreen looks like Slim. His windscreen wipers have smeared a rainbow of old dirt over to my passenger side. Slim says a good way for me to remember the small details of my life is to associate moments and visions with things on my person or things in my regular waking life that I see and smell and touch often. Body things, bedroom things, kitchen things. This way I will have two reminders of any given detail for the price of one.

That's how Slim beat Black Peter. That's how Slim survived the hole. Everything had two meanings, one for here, here being where he was then, cell D9, 2 Division, Boggo Road Gaol, and another for there, that boundless and unlocked universe expanding in his head and his heart. Nothing in the here but four green concrete walls and darkness upon darkness and his lone and stationary body. An angle iron and steel mesh bed welded to a wall. A toothbrush and a pair of cloth prison slippers. But a cup of old milk slid through a cell door slot by a silent screw took him there, to Ferny Grove in the 1930s, the lanky young farmhand milking cows on the outskirts of Brisbane. A forearm scar became a portal to a boyhood bike ride. A shoulder sunspot was a wormhole to the beaches of the Sunshine Coast. One rub and he was gone. An escaped prisoner here in D9. Pretend free but never on the run, which was as good as how he'd been before they threw him in the hole, real free but always on the run.

He'd thumb the peaks and valleys of his knuckles and they would take him there, to the hills of the Gold Coast hinterland, take him all the way to Springbrook Falls, and the cold steel prison bed frame of cell D9 would become a water-worn limestone rock, and the prison hole's cold concrete floor beneath his bare feet summer-warm water to dip his toes into, and he would touch his cracked lips and remember how it felt when something as soft and as perfect as Irene's lips reached his, how she took all his sins and all his pain away with her quenching kiss, washed him clean like Springbrook Falls washed him clean with all that white water bucketing on his head.

I'm more than a little concerned that Slim's prison fantasies are becoming mine. Irene resting on that wet and mossy emerald boulder, naked and blonde, giggling like Marilyn Monroe, head back and loose and powerful, master of any man's universe, keeper of dreams, a vision there to stick around for here, to let the anytime blade of a smuggled shiv wait another day.

'I had an adult mind,' Slim always says. That's how he beat Black Peter, Boggo Road's underground isolation cell. They threw him in that medieval box for fourteen days during a Queensland summer heatwave. They gave him half a loaf of bread to eat across two weeks. They gave him four, maybe five cups of water.

Slim says half of his Boggo Road prison mates would have died after a week in Black Peter because half of any prison population, and any major city of the world for that matter, is filled with adult men with child minds. But an adult mind can take an adult man anywhere he wants to go.

Black Peter had a scratchy coconut fibre mat that he slept on, the size of a doormat, or the length of one of Slim's long shinbones. Every day, Slim says, he lay on his side on the coir mat and pulled those long shinbones into his chest and closed his eyes and opened the door to Irene's bedroom and he slipped under Irene's white bedsheet and he spooned his body gently against hers and he wrapped his right arm around Irene's naked porcelain belly and there he stayed for fourteen days. 'Curled up like a bear and hibernated,' he says. 'Got so cosy down there in hell I never wanted to climb back up.'

Slim says I have an adult mind in a child's body. I'm only twelve years old but Slim reckons I can take the hard stories. Slim reckons I should hear all the prison stories of male rape and men who broke their necks on knotted bedsheets and swallowed sharp pieces of metal designed to tear through their insides and guarantee themselves a weeklong vacation in the sunny Royal Brisbane Hospital. I think he goes too far sometimes with the details, blood spitting from raped arseholes and the like. 'Light and shade, kid,' Slim says. 'No escaping the light and no escaping the shade.' I need to hear the stories about disease and death inside so I can understand the impact of those memories of Irene. Slim says I can take the hard stories because the age of my body matters nothing compared to the age of my soul, which he has gradually narrowed down to somewhere between the early seventies and dementia. Some months ago, sitting in this very car, Slim said he would gladly share a prison cell with me because I listen and I remember what I listen to. A single tear rolled down my face when he paid me this great roommate honour.

'Tears don't go so well inside,' he said.

I didn't know if he meant inside a prison cell or inside one's body. Half out of pride I cried, half out of shame, because I'm not worthy, if worthy's a word for a bloke to share a lag with.

'Sorry,' I said, apologising for the tear. He shrugged.

'There's more where that came from,' he said.

Your end is a dead blue wren. Your end is a dead blue wren.

* * *

I will remember the rainbow of old dirt wiped across Slim's windscreen through the shape of the milky moon rising into my left thumbnail, and forever more when I look into that milky moon I will remember the day Arthur 'Slim' Halliday, the greatest prison escapee who ever lived, the wondrous and elusive 'Houdini of Boggo Road', taught me – Eli Bell, the boy with the old soul and the adult mind, prime prison cellmate candidate, the boy with his tears on the outside – to drive his rusted dark blue Toyota LandCruiser.

Thirty-two years ago, in February 1953, after a six-day trial in the Brisbane Supreme Court, a man named Judge Edwin James Droughton Stanley sentenced Slim to life for brutally bashing a taxi driver named Athol McCowan to death with a .45 Colt pistol. The papers have always called Slim 'the Taxi Driver Killer'.

I just call him my babysitter.

'Clutch,' he says.

Slim's left thigh tenses as his old sun-brown leg, wrinkled with seven hundred and fifty life lines because he might be seven hundred and fifty years old, pushes the clutch in. Slim's old sun-brown left hand shifts the gearstick. A hand-rolled cigarette burning to yellow, grey and then black, hanging precariously to the spit on the corner of his bottom lip.


I can see my brother, August, through the crack in the windscreen. He sits on our brown brick fence writing his life story in fluid cursive with his right forefinger, etching words into thin air.

Boy writes on air.

Boy writes on air the way my old neighbour Gene Crimmins says Mozart played piano, like every word was meant to arrive, parcel packed and shipped from a place beyond his own busy mind. Not on paper and writing pad or typewriter, but thin air, the invisible stuff, that great act-of-faith stuff that you might not even know existed did it not sometimes bend into wind and blow against your face. Notes, reflections, diary entries, all written on thin air, with his extended right forefinger swishing and slashing, writing letters and sentences into nothingness, as though he has to get it all out of his head but he needs the story to vanish into space as well, forever dipping his finger into his eternal glass well of invisible ink. Words don't go so well inside. Always better out than in.

He grips Princess Leia in his left hand. Boy never lets her go. Six weeks ago Slim took August and me to see all three Star Wars movies at the Yatala drive-in. We drank in that faraway galaxy from the back of this LandCruiser, our heads resting on inflated cask wine bags that were themselves resting on an old dead-mullet-smelling crab pot that Slim kept in the back near a tackle box and an old kerosene lamp. There were that many stars out that night over south-east Queensland that when the Millennium Falcon flew towards the side of the picture screen I thought for a moment it might just fly on into our own stars, take the light-speed express flight right on down to Sydney.

'You listenin'?' barks Slim.


No. Never really listenin' like I should. Always thinkin' too much about August. About Mum. About Lyle. About Slim's Buddy Holly spectacles. About the deep wrinkles in Slim's forehead. About the way he walks funny, ever since he shot himself in the leg in 1952. About the fact he's got a lucky freckle like me. About how he believed me when I told him my lucky freckle had a power to it, that it meant something to me, that when I'm nervous or scared or lost, my first instinct is to look at that deep brown freckle on the middle knuckle of my right forefinger. Then I feel better. Sounds dumb, Slim, I said. Sounds crazy, Slim, I said. But he showed me his own lucky freckle, almost a mole really, square on the knobby hill of his right wrist bone. He said he thought it might be cancerous but it's his lucky freckle and he couldn't bring himself to cut it out. In D9, he said, that freckle became sacred because it reminded him of a freckle that Irene had high up on her inner left thigh, not far at all from her holiest of holies, and he assured me that one day I too would come to know this rare place on a woman's high inner thigh and I too would know just how Marco Polo felt when he first ran his fingers over silk.

I liked that story, so I told Slim how seeing that freckle on my right forefinger knuckle for the first time at around the age of four, sitting in a yellow shirt with brown sleeves on a long brown vinyl lounge, is as far back as my memory goes. There's a television on in that memory. I look down at my forefinger and I see the freckle and then I look up and turn my head right and I see a face I think belongs to Lyle but it might belong to my father, though I don't really remember my father's face.

So the freckle is always consciousness. My personal big bang. The lounge. The yellow and brown shirt. And I arrive. I am here. I told Slim I thought the rest was questionable, that the four years before that moment might as well never have happened. Slim smiled when I told him that. He said that freckle on my right forefinger knuckle is home.

* * *


'For fuck's sake, Socrates, what did I just say?' Slim barks.

'Be careful to put your foot down?'

'You were just staring right at me. You looked like you were listenin' but you weren't fuckin' listenin'. Your eyes were wanderin' all over my face, lookin' at this, lookin' at that, but you didn't hear a word.'

That's August's fault. Boy don't talk. Chatty as a thimble, chinwaggy as a cello. He can talk, but he doesn't want to talk. Not a single word that I can recall. Not to me, not to Mum, not to Lyle, not even to Slim. He communicates fine enough, conveys great passages of conversation in a gentle touch of your arm, a laugh, a shake of his head. He can tell you how he's feeling by the way he unscrews a Vegemite jar lid. He can tell you how happy he is by the way he butters bread, how sad he is by the way he ties his shoelaces.

Some days I sit across from him on the lounge and we're playing Super Breakout on the Atari and having so much fun that I look across at him at the precise moment I swear he's going to say something. 'Say it,' I say. 'I know you want to. Just say it.' He smiles, tilts his head to the left and raises his left eyebrow, and his right hand makes an arcing motion, like he's rubbing an invisible snow dome, and that's how he tells me he's sorry. One day, Eli, you will know why I am not speaking. This is not that day, Eli. Now have your fucking go.

Mum says August stopped talking around the time she ran away from my dad. August was six years old. She says the universe stole her boy's words when she wasn't looking, when she was too caught up in the stuff she's going to tell me when I'm older, the stuff about how the universe stole her boy and replaced him with the enigmatic A-grade alien loop I've had to share a double bunk bed with for the past eight years.

Every now and then some unfortunate kid in August's class makes fun of August and his refusal to speak. His reaction is always the same: he walks up to that month's particularly foul-mouthed school bully who is dangerously unaware of August's hidden streak of psychopathic rage and, blessed by his established inability to explain his actions, he simply attacks the boy's unblemished jaw, nose and ribs with one of three sixteen-punch boxing combinations my mum's long-time boyfriend, Lyle, has tirelessly taught us both across endless winter weekends with an old brown leather punching bag in the backyard shed. Lyle doesn't believe in much, but he believes in the circumstance-shifting power of a broken nose.

The teachers generally take August's side because he's a straight-A student, as dedicated as they come. When the child psychologists come knocking, Mum rustles up another glowing testimony from another school teacher about why August's a dream addition to any class and why the Queensland education system would benefit from more children just like him, completely fucking mute.

Mum says when he was five or six August stared for hours into reflective surfaces. While I was banging toy trucks and play blocks on the kitchen floor as Mum made carrot cake, he was staring into an old circular make-up mirror of Mum's. He would sit for hours around puddles looking down at his reflection, not in a Narcissus kind of way, but in what Mum thought was an exploratory fashion, like he was actually searching for something. I would pass by our bedroom doorway and catch him making faces in the mirror we had on top of an old wood veneer chest of drawers. 'Found it yet?' I asked once when I was nine. He turned from the mirror with a blank face and a kink in the upper left corner of his top lip that told me there was a world out there beyond our cream-coloured bedroom walls that I was neither ready for nor needed in. But I kept asking him that question whenever I saw him staring at himself. 'Found it yet?'

He always stared at the moon, tracked its path over our house from our bedroom window. He knew the angles of moonlight. Sometimes, deep into the night, he'd slip out our window, unfurl the hose and drag it in his pyjamas all the way out to the front gutter where he'd sit for hours, silently filling the street with water. When he got the angles just right, a giant puddle would fill with the silver reflection of a full moon. 'The moon pool,' I proclaimed grandly one cold night. And August beamed, wrapped his right arm over my shoulders and nodded his head, the way Mozart might have nodded his head at the end of Gene Crimmins's favourite opera, Don Giovanni. He knelt down and with his right forefinger he wrote three words in perfect cursive across the moon pool.

Boy swallows universe, he wrote.

It was August who taught me about details, how to read a face, how to extract as much information as possible from the non-verbal, how to mine expression and conversation and story from the data of every last speechless thing that is right before your eyes, the things that are talking to you without talking to you. It was August who taught me I didn't always have to listen. I might just have to look.

* * *

The LandCruiser rattles to chunky metal life and I bounce on the vinyl seat. Two pieces of Juicy Fruit that I've carried for seven hours slip from my shorts pocket into a foam cavity in the seat that Slim's old and loyal and dead white bitzer, Pat, regularly chewed on during the frequent trips the two made from Brisbane to the town of Jimna, north of Kilcoy, in Slim's post-prison years.

Pat's full name was Patch but that became a mouthful for Slim. He and the dog would regularly sift for gold in a secret Jimna backwoods creek bed that Slim believes, to this day, contains enough gold deposits to make King Solomon raise an eyebrow. He still goes out there with his old pan, the first Sunday of every month. But the search for gold ain't the same without Pat, he says. It was Pat who could really go for gold. The dog had the nose for it. Slim reckons Pat had a genuine lust for gold, the world's first canine to suffer a case of gold fever. 'The glittery sickness,' he says. 'Sent ol' Pat round the bend.'

Slim shifts the gear stick.

'Be careful to push the clutch down. First. Release the clutch.'

Gentle push on the accelerator.

'And steadily on the pedally.'

The hulking LandCruiser moves forward three metres along our grassy kerbside and Slim brakes, the car parallel to August still writing furiously into thin air with his right forefinger. Slim and I turn our heads hard left to watch August's apparent burst of creativity. When he finishes writing a full sentence he dabs the air as though he's marking a full stop. He wears his favourite green T-shirt with the words You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet written across it in rainbow lettering. Floppy brown hair, borderline Beatle cut. He wears a pair of Lyle's old blue and yellow Parramatta Eels supporter shorts despite the fact that, at thirteen years of age, at least five of which he has spent watching Parramatta Eels games on the couch with Lyle and me, he doesn't have the slightest interest in rugby league. Our dear mystery boy. Our Mozart. August is one year older than me but August is one year older than everybody. August is one year older than the universe.


Excerpted from "Boy Swallows Universe"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Trent Dalton.
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Boy Writes Words,
Boy Makes Rainbow,
Boy Follows Footsteps,
Boy Receives Letter,
Boy Kills Bull,
Boy Loses Luck,
Boy Busts Out,
Boy Meets Girl,
Boy Stirs Monster,
Boy Loses Balance,
Boy Seeks Help,
Boy Parts Sea,
Boy Steals Ocean,
Boy Masters Time,
Boy Sees Vision,
Boy Bites Spider,
Boy Tightens Noose,
Boy Digs Deep,
Boy Takes Flight,
Boy Drowns Sea,
Boy Conquers Moon,
Boy Swallows Universe,
Girl Saves Boy,
About the Author,

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Boy Swallows Universe 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ElleRudy More than 1 year ago
I'd heard a lot of conflicting information about Boy Swallows Universe before I eventually got to reading it. I saw it described as a thriller, romance, crime, coming of age story, and it's not really any of those things on the whole. There's elements of all of those and more, but I hesitate to put any single label on it. Some parts are a real slow burn and others are incredibly fast-paced. The first three-quarters seemed to be all preamble and a set-up for the last quarter; I wish it was a little more consistent throughout. Truthfully I was completely lost at times, not debilitatingly so, but in a way that had me counting pages remaining in the chapter. Additionally there's both fantastical and touchingly beautiful portions fragmented throughout. I'd press anyone who's read it to say they weren't moved during the reflections on trauma and the failure of adults responding to it in children. It's not difficult to discern what's taken directly from Trent Dalton's life and what's fiction. The author is similar to Eli Bell in this way: he's a "'colour writer'...'You like all the little details...You paint pretty pictures.'" I felt like Dalton was constantly adjusting our view from trees to forest, back and forth again and again. The book is about tiny details shaping a boy's life. The book is about the entirety of the universe doing so. The book is about people. The book is about grand ideas. I have no idea what this book was about. I found a lot of scenes playing out in August and Eli's lives familiar to the world we're currently in, but also in stark contrast that feels like it's from a far-off era. There's something surreal about reading material set in the recent past. People live in the suburbs, but women can't open their own bank accounts. Everyone watches tv and drives cars, but you can be openly discriminated against for being a minority. This isn't a land of corsets or flappers in speakeasies, it's the period my parents grew up in, the 60s, 70s & 80s. Some of the typical experiences of people during those decades seem obscene to hear about now. This is the type of novel I think I would revisit at some point in the future. Things I've missed out on the first time around may appear pronounced later on. If HBO is on the look-out for something else to adapt after Big Little Lies & Sharp Objects, I think it would be an excellent candidate.
BooksDirect More than 1 year ago
"Boy Swallows Universe" is set in the 1980s. At the time of reading, I thought this was a convenient way of plotting a story without mobile phones. However, author Trent Dalton estimates his story is “60 per cent fact and 40 per cent fantasy”. I wish I had known this before I started reading the book. The childish antics, choppy narrative, and confusing flashbacks - compounded with the drug dealing and gratuitous violence - nearly caused me to give up about a third of the way through. I persevered, and I’m so glad I did. Knowing now that most of the story was based on the author’s own experiences, makes it all the more harrowing. Notwithstanding the serious subject matter, the book is full of dry humor, literary references, and astute observations on human behavior. It follows the childhood of Eli Bell between the ages of twelve and eighteen and introduces us to the key players in his life. Arthur “Slim” Halliday was “the greatest prison escapee who ever lived”. The papers call him “the Taxi Driver Killer” but twelve-year-old Eli says, “I just call him my babysitter.” Slim teaches Eli that the way “to remember the small details of my life is to associate moments and visions with things on my person or things in my regular waking life that I see and smell and touch often.” And this is how Eli recounts his story, collecting rich details by which he will later remember the events that shape his life. Eli’s thirteen-year-old brother August, who is mute after a traumatic childhood incident, writes in the air with prophetic flourish, “forever dipping his finger into his eternal glass well of invisible ink”. Despite being a heroin dealer, his mother’s boyfriend Lyle is a loving stepfather and role model and the first man Eli ever loves. Everything Eli lives through will lead up to that one moment of truth, when his adult life collides with his childhood life, and he finally gets the chance to avenge Lyle. Eli himself is wise beyond his years: “… the age of my body matters nothing compared to the age of my soul”. It’s no wonder he falls for the much older Caitlyn Spies, criminal reporter for the Courier Mail. His eye for detail and his childhood amongst criminals, make him want to become a journalist. “I’m not interested in crime as much as the people who commit crimes,” he says. He’s fascinated with the idea that one pivotal event can determine your destiny. “I’m interested in how they got to the point they got to. I’m interested in that moment when they decided to be bad instead of good.” The book is full of such moments, when seemingly insignificant events and details come back into play: Slim telling Eli how he broke out of jail, the lucky freckle on Eli’s right index finger, his love of football, his visit to the clock tower, the first line of the book … “Your end is a dead blue wren,” is what August writes in the air at the beginning of the book. And, in the end, it all comes back to that beginning. “Forward to the beginning,” Eli says. “That’s all I’ve ever been doing. Moving forward to the start.” Funny, heartbreaking, uplifting. Warnings: coarse language, drug use, graphic violence, drug dealing, general grossness, sexual references, domestic violence, alcoholism. Full blog post:
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best I've read in a long time. Great characters, fast moving, a fun read. Highly recommended!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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