I remember having doubts about Stephen King’s long essay, “Head Down”, the penultimate story in his 1993 collection Nightmare & Dreamscapes. The piece, which was originally published in the New Yorker, chronicles the 1989 Little League baseball season for Owen King’s team, Bangor West. Surprisingly, it happens to be the most compelling work in the entire collection as King adroitly combines the rats and mice of baseball with a funny and heartfelt profile of a group of young boys struggling with the troughs and peaks of competitive sport.
At the time I decided two things (a) Stephen King has the writerly chops to make any subject fascinating and (b) baseball, while a sport that rivals cricket in the boredom stakes,* lends itself to high drama as evidenced by the following classics of cinema – “Field of Dreams”, “Bull Durham”, “A League of Their Own”, “Major League”, “Moneyball”, that George Herman Ruth biopic where John Goodman played the eponymous “Babe” and “The Natural.” In comparison American Football has “Remember the Titans” and not much else, and the less said about basketball or ice hockey films the better.**
Coincidentally Ross Raisin’s third novel is titled A Natural. It has nothing to do with baseball but if you follow the same critics I do then you’ll have seen a great deal of hype for the book earlier in the year. To say it’s been well reviewed would be like saying that Donald Trump sometimes uses Twitter inappropriately. All the plaudits and backslaps are well deserved because A Natural proves wrong my second assumption, that when it comes to sports and great story-telling baseball has a monopoly. The novel, which is all about soccer – a pastime I couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about… well, unless it’s Australia playing in the World Cup – is as enthralling as Stephen King’s “Head Down”, except in the case of Raisin’s book it’s 100,000 words longer, deals with the professional side of the sport (not Little League) and happens to be fiction.
The main focus of Ross Raisin’s novel is Tom, a 19 year-old who, when the book opens, has just been released from his contact with a local Premier League club. This is a body blow for the young man who always believed he was bound for the English Premier League. Tom is forced to move to a town he’s never heard of, hundreds of miles away from his family, to play for a Division Two team. The club – aptly named “The Town” – is coached by an arsehole, is comprised of a mix of also rans and coulda beens and is facing relegation after an awful start to the season. With the coach unwilling to give Tom game-time, he starts to doubt his ability. In addition he fears the day when a long-held secret becomes known.
While the novel starts with Tom, and while most of the page count is devoted to his ongoing challenge of trying to fit into his new environment while also being true to himself, A Natural isn’t just Tom’s story. Raisin also focuses on the team’s Captain, Chris, a bitter man, who like Tom nearly reached the big-leagues, but was never good enough, and who spends his free time surfing online forums (Raisin nails these forums… sometimes it felt like I was reading about my Aussie Rules football club). More importantly, we also get the perspective from the Captain’s wife, Leah, who worries about her recalcitrant husband – especially after he suffers a horrible injury – while also juggling a toddler and thoughts of a career in textile design.
I was aware of Tom’s secret before I read the novel and it didn’t impact on my enjoyment. This is a book that expertly explores the pressures that come with the expectation of others while also deconstructing the blokey world of professional male sports. Raisin clearly has a deep love for football, and his descriptions of play, especially for a hater like me, were lovingly realised. But he’s also aware that masculinity, mixed with disillusionment and cynicism and a fear that you’ll end your career as a footnote in the history of a club that no-one has heard of, creates an environment where prejudice and insularity – euphemistically described as closing ranks – can destroy a person.
I often see a divide between people who read and enjoy books and people who are passionate about sport. But as Raisin and Stephen King highlight this binary is false. The competitive nature of sport and the personalities involved drive the narrative as much as any literary or genre novel. It’s even possible for a person who is ambivalent or hates a particular game to, for a brief moment, suspend their judgement and become as fanatical as the supporters screaming from the stands. That’s the atmosphere Raisin creates in this superb novel. I’ll be stunned if A Natural isn’t long-listed for the Man Booker.
* And I say that as a cricket tragic who will happily watch all five days of a Test series.
** I am clearly trolling here: The Waterboy is a fantastic film unfairly shunned by the Academy.***
*** Also, please note that as an Australian the only sports I’m referring to are those played by Americans. Because other than “Bodyline” and “The Club” (which came out in 1980… my God, I feel old) you ain’t gonna find many films about cricket or Aussie Rules.