Novel tackling a taboo subject in world of soccer
Fiction: A Natural, Ross Raisin, Jonathan Cape, pbk, 352 pages, €18.20
The English football season can be a bit of a trial, especially for clubs that languish in the lower leagues, and that's partly the subject of Ross Raisin's third novel, which concerns the struggle of one such club to avoid relegation.
The club in question, based on the English south coast, is simply called Town, elevated from Conference status to the second division, though finding it difficult not to slide back down after a succession of defeats and draws.
It's here we meet 19-year-old striker Tom Pearman, recently acquired by the club after his promising start as an admired England youth player but here mostly confined to the subs bench by his new manager.
Raisin conveys the humdrum routine of Tom's working week in lengthy passages that, for all their persuasive fidelity to detail, too often become humdrum themselves. That's perhaps because his real subject lies elsewhere - in Tom's tormented sexuality and, more broadly, in the taboo nature of homosexuality in the English game.
This theme has not previously been addressed in English fiction, despite the stark fact that of the 5,000 full-time players who are currently in British football, not one has come out as gay. Justin Fashanu, who did, committed suicide in 1999, while Graeme Le Saux's fondness for the Guardian and the arts led to homophobic taunts that persisted throughout his career.
This is a prospect that also terrifies Tom, whose evolving relationship with groundsman Liam, the son of the family with whom he is lodging, puts the livelihoods and reputations of both young men at risk.
Tom himself is in semi-denial about his orientation. Convinced that there's "something deeply wrong with him", he feels a "hot revulsion" during his first sexual encounter with Liam where he experiences "the deviant excitement of their stubble coming together".
The reader, though, doesn't feel the illicit thrill of this deviant excitement, or indeed any thrill at all from these glum, guilt-ridden couplings. This is partly because neither of these decent young men is very interesting and partly because of the flat, impersonal prose that Raisin employs - a far cry from the exuberant vernacular that distinguished his first two novels, God's Own Country (2008) and Waterline (2011), the former narrated by a disturbed Yorkshire teenager and the latter concerning a former Glaswegian shipbuilder.
But Raisin here opts for a detached third-person narrative, which permits him to tell not just Tom's story but also, in alternating chapters, that of Liam and of team captain Chris, who becomes injured in the course of the novel and faces a very uncertain future.
Indeed, the book picks up considerably in the chapters that focus on Chris and his wife Leah. The ageing Chris, once a star player for a more famous club, is aware that the coarse, bluff manager has never wanted him in the squad and is intent on getting rid of him.
Meanwhile, the unhappy and increasingly lonely Leah is reduced to recalling a more exciting time in their lives when "brigades of girls came and talked to him, bought him drinks, touched his stomach, his bum, and she would grow unsure whether they were even aware of her there, holding his hand".
The predicament of this couple is handled with sympathetic tact, not least when their increasing resentment at what life has done to them threatens to put Liam and Tom's secret relationship at risk.
And the book picks up some momentum in its latter stages as Tom indiscreetly confides his sexual orientation to a fellow player and Liam gets outed on an online forum, with lots of speculation about the player with whom he's involved.
At this point, the duo's affair seems headed for catastrophe, with internet trolls ranting about "faggots" and Tom terrified that he'll be identified as the player in question. But even here, Raisin is so reticent, so oblique even, that the effect is muffled rather than understated.
Raisin leaves these matters unresolved rather than interestingly ambivalent, and, meanwhile, the dogged accounts of matches won, drawn and lost in the lower reaches of the professional game persist throughout the novel, leaving the reader to wonder: who'd be a footballer?
But then Raisin seems unsure about what should be his true focus of attention. Should it be the precarious life of a young footballer in a sport that can be ruthless in its treatment of players? Or should it be the homophobic nature of a game that forces young men to live a lie as they're compelled to sacrifice personal honesty and integrity for public success?
Neither subject quite gets its due in a book that, if not quite of two halves, is of two minds about what it seeks to achieve.