The other day I heard someone summarise the plot of Tim Parks’s new novel. The synopsis went something like this: ‘It’s about a middle-aged writer, whose life is revolutionised by anal massage. And he has an affair.’ In that moment I was struck anew by the many excellent qualities of Ross Raisin’s new book. The school of writerly self-absorption has given us much fine fiction, or semi-fiction, in recent years. But it can create a strong thirst for the opposite tendency: for novels that take you somewhere you haven’t been before, that create an enclosed, distinctive world of their own. There are very few good British novels about sport, and, David Peace aside, hardly any about football – despite its place in our culture. In A Natural, Raisin delves into the life of a lower league English football team – a subject never covered before, as far as I know, in literary fiction. Perhaps it doesn’t sound an immediately appealing prospect. But he makes it wholly absorbing.
David Storey, who died in March, began his great rugby league novel, This Sporting Life (1960), with the memorable line: ‘I had my head to Mellor’s backside, waiting for the ball to come between his legs.’ For comparable reasons, Raisin also focuses his opening lines on the male posterior: ‘A few drivers had slowed to look up at the side of the coach as it circled the roundabout. Along one stretch of its window, near the back, three pairs of white buttocks were pressed to the glass like a row of supermarket chicken breasts. A car came past and the driver sounded his horn.’ A Natural is a novel about male bodies and male bonding. The word ‘banter’ features regularly: ‘Brilliant banter,’ the manager says after one particularly mirthless exploit. ‘Bloody brilliant banter.’ The opening gives some idea of Raisin’s chosen visual palette: supermarket chicken breasts, roundabouts in provincial towns. A few lines later, we see one of the ‘mooners’ close up: his face ‘gurning’, his trousers dropped to his ankles, ‘his cock bobbing stupidly with the motion of the vehicle as it overtook a caravan onto the dual carriageway’.
The book follows the career of Tom Pearman, a 19-year-old professional football player who has recently been cast off by the youth academy of his home team, a Premiership side somewhere unspecified in the north. He is thrown a lifeline by ‘Town’, a ‘small club down south’ just promoted from the non-league Conference to League Two, with ‘money behind them’. Raisin evokes the resolutely unglamorous world of the bottom of professional football with near-sadistic relish. Life is measured out in losses to Southend, Torquay and Dagenham, in tedious training routines and beery evenings spent trying to please the sponsors. A typical sentence reads: ‘He was picked to start in the first round of a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tie, at home against Stevenage’; or, ‘The starting eleven and substitutes were made to undergo a video analysis of the Shrewsbury match.’
The team are well paid compared to their peers, and they have a kind of low-wattage celebrity. They can expect to be recognised over vodka and Red Bulls at the Beach Hut, the Town’s premier night spot, and if they go for a walk they might be taunted by the local scallies: ‘Things not going so well, are they?’ Out of town, players trying to chat up women in bars are told: ‘Sorry, mate, I’ve never heard of you.’ The manager, Clarke, is a wonderful minor character, a talentless part-timer – he runs a van hire business – whose brand of ‘big man hoofball’ doesn’t cut the mustard in League Two. He stands on the touchline, looking ‘old and dark with rage’ as the defeats pile up. After one particularly egregious display, he offers a post-match debrief in his own distinctive style: ‘They stopped for takeaways on the way back, and the air of the coach became thick with the rich cheesy stink of two-for-one pizzas. Tom ate his slice slowly, looking out of the window at the hurtling dark while Clarke proceeded up the aisle, stopping at each seat to say, softly, “Cunt” to every player along the way.’
Stories about football, and sport generally, always carry the expectation that the hero will perform heroically at some point; Raisin ruthlessly subverts this. The title is, among other things, an ironic reference to Clarke’s welcoming motivational speech to Tom. ‘I’ve been watching you,’ he says. ‘I thought, that boy’s a player. A natural. And I’m going to turn him into a man.’ Tom’s entire life – his family’s life – has been geared around his talent. All he has ever wanted is to play football. At school, every break was spent playing, with the other boys shouting: ‘Give it Tom. Give it Tom.’ But he spends most of his time on the bench, or out of the squad altogether – injured or not selected, doing his washing at the launderette on match days. And he, like all his team mates, is playing over the void: if they fail at Town, there is nothing beneath them. One, laid off with the traditional bromide that it’d be better for him to be playing first-team football elsewhere, responds: ‘Who for, Ash? The Dog and Duck?’ There’s a terrible scene in which Tom passes through the players’ lounge after some of the youth academy have had their futures ‘dealt with’:
Boys sat alone in all corners of the lounge. A few had their faces lowered to the floor; one was fixed on a piece of paper that looked like a certificate. Some turned away from him … Those eight boys had nowhere to drop to except the sprawling expanse of the semi-pro, the amateur, the Sunday pitches, armed with a sports science BTEC and the realisation that their dream was over.
Raisin’s best-known work is his first novel, God’s Own Country (2008), in which a sociopathic farm boy goes on the rampage across the North Yorkshire moors. Written from Sam Marsdyke’s deranged but bracing perspective, it is all voice, spiced with rants against ‘ramblers’ and ‘towns’, and studded with Yorkshire dialect words: nazzart, gleg, glishy, gradely, blatherskite. Though both books are interested in male loners – in people who, as Sam’s mother has it, ‘must’ve came out backward’ – and in awkward father-son relationships, the two novels could hardly be more different. A Natural is tonally neutral, with a third-person narration that studiedly doesn’t draw attention to itself. The reason for this becomes clear soon enough. We’re aware that Tom is uneasy in the company of the other players: we first see him ‘sat alone beside his kitbag’. He seems unusually shy and self-conscious. He keeps his cactus collection hidden under his bed, and often seems mortified by the banter – particularly the more homoerotically tinged sort. When, in the showers, one of the team remarks approvingly to a younger player that he has ‘a superb cock, mate’, Tom keeps his eyes to the floor, ‘anxious somebody might see him looking and bring the room’s attention to him’. When he visits the local hospital as part of the team’s good works, an old man remarks to him: ‘Don’t mean to be rude, but I’m not sure you look like a footballer to me.’
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, it becomes apparent that Tom is gay, and that the book has been acting out his repressed, closeted state: it doesn’t even admit to his desires until they have been partially enacted. Tom is drawn to Town’s groundsman, Liam, himself a former footballer and the son of the family he lodges with. He finds himself returning wordlessly to Liam’s shed. Their courtship, if you can call it that, alternates between stasis and sudden compulsive accelerations, which Raisin accentuates by leaving out some of the expected steps in the sequence:
Something livid surged through Tom, watching Liam carry on with his machines and his boxes in this private shithole, forcing him to stand there like a queer. He wanted to hurt him, to push him to the ground and press his head against the concrete. Liam stopped boxing the tines as Tom’s fingers moved slowly around his neck, finding the soft hollow of his throat, the delicate spokes beneath the skin. Liam stood up. Tom could see the movement of his breath through the wide pink nostrils.
It has often been pointed out that not one of Britain’s four thousand professional footballers is openly gay. Raisin gives an explanation for this in a fiction which is almost like an anthropological study. In the closed world of football, all players have to pay obeisance to a version of masculinity imposed by the bullying older alpha males, and reinforced unthinkingly by the herd. There are various esoteric and horrendous coming-of-age rituals inflicted on Town’s younger players, such as ‘the boot polish treatment’: ‘Easter appeared with the brush and tin and held the boy down on the grass himself while several others stripped him and pinned his spatchcocked legs for Price to apply the polish to his genitals.’ This victim passes the test. He emerges ‘naked, grinning and pale. In the middle of his white body was the shocking sight of his black, oiled penis, his thighs blotchy with scarlet finger marks.’ But others do not, and are duly rejected by the crew. And part of all this is the constant stream of homophobic assertion: the manager calls them ‘a bunch of soft fucking fairies’; the team are constantly inveighing against faggots; these instincts are all sanctioned and amplified by the chants coming off the terraces on match days. And Tom, immersed in football from his childhood, has internalised it all: he hates himself, and thinks that there is ‘something deeply wrong with him’.
No doubt this is all true, as a matter of sociology. But as a piece of fiction it sometimes feels too neat. Occasionally the novel explores the ‘issue’ at its centre somewhat programmatically, as a thoughtful but uninspired TV drama might. There is a secondary storyline involving Leah, the unhappy wife of the team’s captain, which has its moments, but it is less interesting and distinctive than Tom’s story. Two crucial plot developments towards the end of the book cleave rather too conveniently to the conventional wisdom about bigotry, rather than arising organically from the characters and their situations. Ultimately, one player rises and another falls on the wheel of fortune, which perhaps gives the story shape at the expense of subtlety. The book’s other weakness is that, because of Raisin’s chosen approach, it is a little short on exhilaration. Literary fiction as a whole probably overvalues prose style, but there are times when the drabness seems overdone: ‘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.’
All the same, A Natural is a very impressive book. Raisin treats his subject with sensitivity and composure. His patient, intelligent accumulation of detail means that the world of a small professional football club is brought to life, from the groundsman’s daily rounds to the horror of suffering a long-term injury when you’re supposed to be in your physical prime. Raisin has a vision of sport, and of love, as grim, masculine compulsions, and he sticks to it doggedly and convincingly.