Footballer’s tale ends in a nil-nil draw
AGOOD novelist should be able to make any subject interesting. That’s one benefit of style over content. The reader’s prejudices can be wholeheartedly ignored. So, when Ross Raisin’s new novel came skidding down my hallway (my postman loves an open door) I disregarded the fact that it was about football, a sport that bores me more than filling in my tax return. Instead, I spent an hour trawling through the reviews of Raisin’s previous two novels, God’s Own Country and Waterline. Critical opinion assured me that this was a writer to watch. He has linguistic flair and an original voice. His work contains pathos and humour, in careful balance. His novels have flaws, I read, but one day he will write something deserving of trophies and cash prizes. It was all very encouraging. I cracked the spine and settled in.
It gives me little pleasure to say that A Natural is not the masterpiece much hoped for by my fellow critics. There is something dead and heavy about Raisin’s prose. At first, one wonders if this is because the characters are depressed and aimless. They are, and there’s good reason for them to feel as they do, but there’s no excuse for inflicting their pain on us. The whole novel contains only a smattering of humour and sinks under the weight of superfluous passages.
There are whole chapters detailing the small monotonous movements of people. Take this extract from the start of chapter 16. Leah is married to injured footballer Chris: “Leah moved about the kitchen, taking the butter out of the fridge, putting the chocolate mousse in to set, making a salad, checking on the roast, the potatoes, Tyler. She and her mum had decided on a late lunch after his nap, but he woke up after only half an hour, out of sorts and needy for her attention, so she had put him in front of the television while she rushed around trying to get the preparations finished before her mum and Robert arrived. Chris was in the office. She had not seen him since he came out of the toilet a couple of hours earlier in an unwashed T-shirt, barefoot.”
Apart from the first clause, this is tedious stuff. It’s like reading a shameful attempt at Hemingway. There is paragraph after paragraph of mindnumbing detail. Leah starts as a minor character, but during an incredulous episode becomes the antagonist, and an important player in shaping the direction of the Tom Pearman’s life. Tom, the protagonist, spends his boyhood at a premier league academy but fails to be recruited by the big guns. He ends up playing – or not playing most of the time – for a small club in a place called Town. It is clear there is more than sporting failure bugging him. He’s young, he’s got money and he’s doing what he loves, yet he yearns for a different sort of happiness.
Tom’s emotional exile from the world stems from his attraction to other men. Raisin does a fair job of capturing the disquiet his protagonist feels at his sexual awakening. Tom’s feelings also cast the behaviour of his teammates in a harsh light. Their laddish games of philandering become more unsavoury.
Tom’s desires and morality are in conflict, so much so that when he starts dating Liam – the groundskeeper and son of his landlord – he feels a deep revulsion. It is during the scenes between the pair that Raisin shows what he can do with language. When Tom goes on holiday with Liam he sees on the flight an old couple holding on to each other during turbulence and feels his own body is ‘defenceless’ against the world. That one carefully chosen word is packed with meaning.
But, come the final whistle, Raisin’s novel falls flat. One looks back and sees only a lack of spirit and verve. In footballing terms, it is a goalless draw with only a few brief “flashes of inspiration”, as a commentator might say, a few striking passages, such as when the “hot sea” is described as “shining in the afternoon sun like the skin of a fish”. Still, it could have been worse. I could have finished the book in a swoon of heady celebration and gone out, full of enthusiasm and with a fresh pair of eyes, to watch a real game of footy. That’s the danger of good style. It induces a pleasing distortion of the world. As it is, I still hate football, just a little more keenly now.