by Ross Raisin
Published 2017 by Random House
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0525508779
By Noah Sanders
It is understandable if a reader is apprehensive of picking up Ross Raisin’s newest novel, A Natural, because of its superficial description as a “sports book.” A Natural sells itself in its first hundred or so pages as a book that in near claustrophobic fashion, details the grinding routine and oppressive masculinity that define professional sports at the bottom of the barrel, specifically the low leagues of professional, English football. This is a world akin to politics, where every word spoke, every seat taken, every conversation kicked up places you in the hierarchy of your team, for better or worse. The more skilled you are, the better you’re loved, but emotional attachment is a flash in a pan, every friendship just injury away from dissolution. Raisin’s novel addresses these issues but his goal as the book stodgily sallies forward isn’t to pull the curtain back on modern, English football. The author picks apart the common perceptions of masculinity—both in sports and in everyday life—using the drab canvas of small town soccer as a launch pad.
Tom Pearman is a talented, 19-year old striker who’s lost out on a contract from his hometown Premiere Academy and drifted South, ending up as a wing for a low-league football outfit struggling to stay relevant. Pearman is skilled but as the book begins he struggles to find his footing or make friends within the tightly knit group of aspiring soccer professionals. He lingers at the edges of social gatherings, avoids his loving family, and on the field shies from using his prodigious talents. His introversion seems warranted. The world of professional soccer in Raisin’s hands is a plodding struggle, a grim injury-laden series of practices and games that brooks no concern for what the future might hold for an individual. The culture inherent in the sport is one of toxic masculinity where nothing is excepted but utmost effort and athleticism wrapped in the traditional stance of tough-guy posturing.
Though A Natural is ostensibly about soccer—and Raisin spends a lot of time describing pitches, matches, the sweaty muscles of young athletes, etc.—it’s more so a coming of age story about a shy introvert with a secret. Pearman’s struggles to “fit in” with his new teammates are heightened by the fact that he’s gay, a one-way ticket to being ousted by the world of professional sports. Pearman isn’t exactly interesting, but it doesn’t seem as if Raisin wants him to be. Instead he seems a product of the football atmosphere—any of his edges worn down to nothing and then buried under a game face and want of being the best. Underneath it though, Pearman’s an emotional mess—struggling to find footing in the inconsistent limbo football manages to push him into while hoping his innate sexual urges, lustily described by Raisin, can be contained, shoved down into the grey morass of his emotions his football life has created. At 19, Pearman has only really done one thing—play football—and as he begins to mature emotionally, the push and pull of competitive sports doesn’t provide him with the answers to the big questions of his life anymore. When he starts a face with ruddy-faced Liam, the team’s groundskeeper, the urge to play professional ball and the urge to just be who he is collide, spinning him further into his own self. He’s different than the testosterone spewing football dudes he’s spent his entire life with—he’s gay, shy, halfway between traditional sporting masculinity and the emotional security he yearns for—but he’s unable to bring together the quickly dividing strands of his new life.
The book isn’t an easy one to just wander into. Raisin spends the first hundred or so pages flatly laying out the stakes of low-league professional soccer and the portrait he paints is a dreary, even boring one. The beginning of this book is a trudge through quicksand, with Pearman’s severe introversion allowing only a laser-focused view from the cheap seats. Yes, Raisin does spend too long setting the mood and the atmosphere, but when the story starts to pick up, when the secrets are revealed and the cogs of the narrative start turning, the reader, knowingly or not, is immersed in this stolid world. There’s a low-level thrill in seeing Pearman, and his team, succeed (and fail) and even more of a rush to see the main character start to shakily pull himself from his shell.
There’s a real fear as the book nosedives towards the reveal of Pearman’s sexuality and his relationship with Liam that Raisin might dip towards the soap-operatic, but the author never loosens his grip on the narrative. What could be portrayed in dramatic terms instead becomes a textured look at a redefinition of self in a world where redefinitions are rarely allowed. Raisin paints his world in drabs greys and greens and though Pearman’s stab at acceptance of his own sexual orientation flares brightly amidst the somber backdrop, the novel isn’t sidetracked by a need for a theatrical reveal. As the events of the book play out, Raisin keeps to blunt descriptions and a moment-by-moment feel that, though stripping the novel of any high highs or low lows, allows his characters to interact realistically with the events at hand. As the novel begin,s Pearman is a soccer player with a secret and as it lumbers toward a conclusion this doesn’t change—his own true self just becomes more acceptable. If the opening hundred pages seem aimed at the crushing mundanity of barely professional sports, it’s for a reason: Pearman’s self-discovery, his small growth as a human being feels enormous in the world it builds, the shadow it throws. If you’ve come to the book for the glitz and glamour of professional football, you’ll be disappointed. A Natural is a coming-of-age story that comes to fruition on the shadowy edge of a harsh sports culture and as that it succeeds.