A NATURAL By Ross Raisin
2017 is the year of the closeted British soccer player! Feature film
The Pass stars Russell Tovey and Arinzé Kene as two Premier League soccer players together in a hotel room the night before a big match. They loll around in their underwear, dialling up the homoerotic tension.
A Natural is also about a closeted soccer player, Tom Pearman, a promising junior signed to Town, a team that has been newly promoted to League Two.
Living away from home for the first time, 19-year-old Tom guards his behaviour in this all-male environment, where cocks casually f lop in his face in the changing room. The atmosphere of a professional soccer club is extremely well depicted: the intense stress, the brutal demotions, the hazing, and the constant scrutiny by the coaches and supporters.
Tom seems poised to succeed but the novel’s other major character, Chris Easter, is on a slow, painful decline. Chris is Town’s captain and was once the team’s star but a run of poor performances and a major injury have brought his career to a standstill. Chris’ head is as wracked as his body by the toll of his injuries. He’s obsessed with online message boards where the team’s performance is brutally dissected and where he is constantly trolled. The pressure on these players is acutely drawn and is one of the book’s great strengths.
The other exceptional accomplishment is the depiction of closeted Tom slowly being drawn into a relationship with another man. Although it’s conducted with secrecy, gradually concessions are made. Friends are told in strictest confidence. Tom confides in one of his team-mates and his sister. The f ledgling couple even go on holiday together to Portugal, where they are unknown. But Tom’s future is always precarious: a new manager arrives, and new players are signed, including a rising star who plays the same position as Tom. The climax of the novel depicts the exposure of the same-sex affair but it doesn’t play out as readers might expect; Raisin has one final twist up his sleeve.
Coming-out novels were once the stock-intrade of gay fiction but Raisin has breathed new life into the genre. The closet doors rarely creak open for professional sportsmen and this is a devastating portrayal of their highstakes situation.