Foot­baller’s tale ends in a nil-nil draw

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Ross Raisin Vin­tage, £14.99 Re­view by Nick Ma­jor

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.

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