Book Review: “A Natural” by Ron Raisin

27 August 2018

Generally, I’m not a fan of sports-related fiction. I find it’s either too hyper-masculine, too nostalgic, or both. But when I heard that Ron Raisin, author of God’s Own Country, which was made into an achingly beautiful and sensitive film in 2017, had turned his considerable narrative talent to the world of professional English football, I was immediately intrigued and couldn’t wait to give it a read.

I am fairly confident in saying that A Natural is unlike any other sports novel you’re likely to read any time soon. Without giving too much away, this is the story of Tom Pearman, an ex- Premier League academy footballer who now finds himself playing for a lower professional league in a town he’s never heard of. On the surface, Tom looks like your stereotypical young English footballer. But you sense early on that there’s something different about him, something you can’t quite put your finger on. He’s a solitary figure, reclusive and perhaps more sensitive than his rather laddish teammates, but you’re not quite sure. Little is given away at first.

Then Tom meets Liam, his club’s head groundsman. Liam is a former goalkeeper whose professional career never took off. He is also the son of the team’s chairman and a friend of Leah, a lonely young mother and the wife of Chris Easter, the team’s brooding and morose captain, whose career has seen better days and who seems to exist on a knife’s edge, ready to blow at any minute.

A Natural is a story of love and sexual repression set against a backdrop of toxic masculinity and rampant homophobia. As a longtime fan of the English Premier League I am well-aware of the locker room antics and homophobia within the league, but what is most startling and moving about this novel is that it exposes this bigotry in a way that is all the more powerful for the subtlety of author Ron Raisin’s approach.

The ending is inevitable and yet it still manages to surprise. The author’s message is clear yet nothing about A Natural is preachy. Its matter-of-factness startles, moves, and makes you look at the world of professional and semi-professional football/soccer in a sobering light. How many footballers out there are like Tom Pearman?  More than we imagine, I daresay.


6 August 2018: More Art and Other Miscellany

Left London yesterday afternoon and am now at Brockhall, where I will be based until the end of September. The weather is still hot and stuffy but the forecast promises some relief toward the end of the week when the temperature is supposed to drop into the high-60s. The house isn’t air-conditioned and a trip to Home Base proved what I had been told – fans are at a premium…in other words, they’re sold out. Too much air-conditioning is bad for you anyway, right?

I applied online for my National Insurance number this morning. For those of you outside the UK, an NI number is like a social security number. You need it for tax purposes as well as for being employed. The application was (surprisingly) very straightforward. I received confirmation that within the next 24-48 hours, I’d be given a date/time to schedule an interview.  Butterflies in my stomach but an item checked off my “To-Do” list. I also got my picture taken in a photo booth in Tesco for my provisional driver’s license application.

Despite the broiling heat in London, I managed to attend two exhibitions on Saturday. The first was the “Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire” at the National Gallery. Cole is celebrated for founding the Hudson River Valley school of painting in the mid-19th century. He was a Brit from Manchester who witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of industrialization on Manchester’s cotton mills (devastating from the perspective of the laborer) before moving to Philadelphia with his family in the early 1800s. His paintings are often epic in scale and serve as visual polemics on the destructiveness of modern life and industry upon Nature. The exhibition is beautifully and thoughtfully curated and makes for prescient viewing amidst today’s technology-obsessed media-driven world. (It was also, mercifully, very well air-conditioned!)

I then hiked from Trafalgar Square along Pall Mall and up to Piccadilly to attend the annual Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. The art on display this year is a riot of color, irreverence, and contrasts of style and tone. It was bright and fun and just what you would expect from an exhibition curated this year by Grayson Perry. Because there is so much to see and the walls of each gallery are hung to capacity — not to mention the hoards of well-lubricated attendees crowding each room (a full bar is on site in one of the galleries for the occasion) — one cannot possibly take it all in on one go. For that reason, the catalog comes in handy. I look forward to giving it a more thorough read this week.

In contrast, an accompanying show celebrating 250 years of the Summer Exhibition was a much more staid, though no less enlightening, affair. The newly renovated and greatly expanded Royal Academy is terrific to behold. I’ll be going back when next I’m in London.

On an unrelated note, I just started reading Ross Raisin’s latest novel “A Natural.” I didn’t realize he’d written “God’s Own Country,” the film version of which I streamed a few months ago and was absolutely smitten — shares a similar subject matter to “Brokeback Mountain” but better, grittier, and more real. Based on the reviews I’ve read, I think “A Natural” does something similar within the context of professional English football. I’m only fifty pages in, but Raisin writes like a dream.

That’s all for now. It’s 5:30pm which means “Eggheads” in half an hour. The game shows here are addictive.

3 August 2018: London

Although this is technically Day 2 of my two-month UK sojourn as I lay the foundation for a permanent move to England in January, because yesterday was a jet-lagged blur I feel like today is more a Day 1 in spirit.

The temperature is infernally hot here in London as it is over most of the Northern Hemisphere. The humidity is reminiscent of Chicago at this time of year. Still, the city feels as glorious and alive as ever, despite the fact that everyone looks uncomfortable and is drenched in sweat and the grass in the normally verdant parks is dusty and patchwork: a marked change from the last time I was here in May.

Regardless, it was a joy to walk through Hyde Park this morning with my mom, stopping for a breakfast of porridge and a cappuccino at the Serpentine Cafe and admiring the ethereal weirdness of Christo’s Mastaba that currently looms over the water like a purple and pink (depending on how the sun catches it) floating fortress.

We then walked over to the Victoria and Albert museum where I thoroughly enjoyed the new “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up” exhibition. Through self-portraiture, photographs, archive video, artifacts, and – mostly vibrantly – a representative selection of the artist’s famously Mexican wardrobe, the collective effect upon the viewer is one of admiration, awe, and sadness. Kahlo’s resilience shines through again and again despite her all-too-encompassing pain. The selection of the various corsets and braces she was forced to wear as the result of injuries sustained from an accident with a streetcar when she was just eighteen were particularly harrowing.

This exhibition stands in interesting contrast/comparison to the Michael Jackson: On the Wall exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve always enjoyed MJ’s music and his showmanship is almost second to none. The National Portrait Gallery show looks at MJ’s life and music through the lens of artwork created by others in homage to the King of Pop. It’s terribly kitschy yet manages to capture the essence of his brilliance and the underlying tragedy of his life, while inspiring me to give his musical catalogue another listen.

Spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in a deck chair (in the shade) back in Hyde Park before drinks and nibbles at the newly refurbished American Bar at the Stafford Hotel – a longtime favorite – in St. James. I am attempting to go teetotal so I opted out of my customary red wine or rose to try Seedlip – the world’s first non-alcoholic spirit. I’ve been hearing about it for a year now but nowhere in the States seems to serve it. It’s quite popular here in the UK. There are now three flavors to choose from: Garden 108, Spice 94, and the just-introduced Citrus. Mixed with Fever-Tree tonic water, the Garden 108 has a pleasantly refreshing herbal kick reminiscent of a gin and tonic. I liked it so much that I bought a bottle of the stuff at Fortnum & Mason to take home with me. I think it’ll be my drink of choice at least for the foreseeable future. I had two.

Back in my hotel room for the evening, catching up on emails, some work, and planning to finish David Sedaris’ new collection of essays – “Calypso” – before Gardener’s World comes on at 9. The latest Sedaris has its poignant moments — especially when he discusses the troubled life and suicide of his sister Tiffany and the alcoholism of his mother — but I’m not as engaged in it as I have been with his previous collections. There is humor to be found here but mostly his writing has a melancholic, reflective cast, more seriously autobiographical than comically anecdotal. I still recommend it but perhaps not quite as effusively as I have in the past.

I am also plotting out some new fiction of my own, about which I’ll say more later. The title I’m playing around with at the moment is “Jupiter’s Bodyguard.” I’m curious to know if anyone picks up on the allusion…