Put together all the professional footballers in the English game who have ever come out as gay and you’d just about scrape together a starting eleven. In Ross Raisin’s A Natural, a young player is torn between his sexual urges and the threat they pose to his professional reputation. Tom Pearman, a former England youth player and product of a Premier League academy, has just been sold to a newly promoted League Two side. Tom is a perceptive judge of his own erratic on-field form, but the truth about his sexuality is something he can’t admit, even to himself, let alone his casually, and not so casually, homophobic team-mates.
Tom is isolated in every sense, having moved away from his family in an unspecified northern city to the south coast. His new team, referred to throughout simply as Town, is ambitious, but there are doubts about the capability of manager and squad. Tom is the player with the best pedigree, but is soon sidelined by injury. When he finally gets a chance in the team, he is unable to show his quality as the defeats accumulate.
Raisin is an extremely skilled world-builder, and his evocation of a lower-league football club is intensively, compellingly imagined, from dressing-room banter and team nights out to the ebb and flow of a match. Raisin acutely captures the sport’s cruelties, the attrition rate that condemns many more players to fail than succeed, and how bad form so often swells into seemingly inescapable, Sisyphean cycles.
Terrified of being singled out by his team-mates as different, and therefore a candidate for mockery or abuse (new players, especially youngsters, are subjected to humiliating rituals such as having their genitals covered in boot polish), Tom navigates a path between invisibility and collusion with the pack. Before away trips he scours the internet for funny videos to show on the coach, while laughter at a nervously assayed joke or a matey wink prompts an elation that seems disproportionate, until you remember his fear that people might guess his desires just by looking at him. “Every face, every pair of eyes, he became more convinced with each step, would be able to see it in him,” he thinks as he walks up the tunnel to the pitch.
Tom’s paranoia and shame only increase when he acts on those desires, beginning an affair with Liam, a Town groundsman. Before he ever has to deal with what anyone else thinks about it, he must reckon with his own disgust; he watches Liam with “hot revulsion”, thinks of himself as “abnormal, worthless”, and even believes he’s “about to be sick into the man’s warm stinking mouth” amid the “deviant excitement of their stubble coming together”.
The friction between Tom’s furtive attainment of his desires and his abhorrence of them is the engine that drives the novel. His fear of discovery is so pervasive that it becomes existential: he is, in a memorable phrase, only “acting like himself”. So profound is the extent of his mask-wearing that small moments take on deep significance: joining in with homophobic team banter on the coach, or catching someone’s eye at the wrong moment, become tense episodes in which Raisin makes us powerfully share Tom’s panic and, occasionally, relief. And when he does come close to telling someone else the truth about himself, the effect is shocking.
But we aren’t always inside Tom’s twitchy, threat-filled world. Some chapters follow Chris Easter, the Town captain whose form has dipped, and his unhappy wife, Leah. The obstacles in Leah’s way – whether Chris will accompany her and their son, Tyler, to a petting zoo, or if she’ll muster the independence to take a college trip to Milan – feel soapy compared to the drama Raisin generates from small incidents in Tom’s life. Leah and Chris are vital to the plot and their feelings of isolation counterpoint Tom’s, but the narrative tension slackens in their sections.
Raisin’s first novel, God’s Own Country, was told in a pungent North York Moors vernacular and his second, Waterline, adopted the working-class Glaswegian of its central character, Mick, a shipbuilder. A Natural is the first book in which Raisin has employed a more distant, omniscient voice and he relishes the opportunities it affords him, such as taking us high into the sky above a pitch being cleared of snow: “Viewed from above, the field, with its shovelling figures moving at the edges of these dark patches, looked like an archaeological site.”
It is only when he switches to close third, his prose taking on the flavour of a particular character, that his sure touch sometimes falters. To give two examples, when Liam becomes afraid his affair with Tom will go public, we are told that he “thought about how far his disgrace might have spread through the intact beating organ of the football club, the town, the media, the unending veined possibilities of the internet”. There is nothing wrong with this as prose, but by this stage in the novel we know Liam well and the metaphorical register just doesn’t sound like him. When Tom, alone in a hotel restaurant, finds “the anonymity of it . . . as shocking and weightless as an ice bath” the simile feels too carefully drawn from the accoutrements of his profession. On these occasions Raisin’s prose gets between reader and character, the interruptions all the more notable because much of the writing in A Natural is so enveloping.
As with all the best sports novels, the game at the heart of A Natural is more than just a game. Tom is a divided self, suppressing his physical instincts off the field while surrendering to them on it. The connection is made explicit when, describing a goal, the language becomes deliberately erotic:
The ball went underneath the goalkeeper’s dive. All around Tom people were jumping about, doolally, released from themselves. Kenny was shaking his fist in the air. He turned to Tom and they put their arms around each other, bobbing up and down, fastened together, Kenny’s nose pressing into his cheek – “Yes, Tommy! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Release from himself is the best Tom seems able to hope for; sitting beside Liam at one point, he considers “the impossibility of being one person, instead of all these different people running and hiding from themselves”. The deeper question implied by Raisin’s intensely involving novel is whether Tom can look beyond escape, get his many selves playing on the same team, and start working on acceptance instead.
A Natural by Ross Raisin is published Jonathan Cape (352pp, £14.99)
This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda