A NAT­U­RAL By Ross Raisin

DNA Magazine - - BOOKS -

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.

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