Let's get something out of the way. I don't always like the rules. I think all of us can agree that sometimes the rules are stupid. I don't always play by the rules, but sometimes I do. And sometimes I just dance around the issue discussing the rules instead of getting to the point... I was raised in the States and so, we have a little sport we call soccer. Growing up, I believed that's what its name was until, later in life, I learned that much of the rest of the world calls it football. That makes sense. I like that name better. I'm not much into sports, but when my kids started to play competitive “soccer,” I started to follow the sport minimally. And man, can some people get upset about the name. Okay, I agree it shouldn't be called soccer, but it is what it is. That said, I believe I'm mostly writing for an American audience, so I'm going to use the term “soccer.” Some of you may get upset about this. Given the comments I've come across online from time to time, some of you may really get upset about this. But let me tell you why none of this matters:
Because this book isn't about soccer (or football).
Yes, the protagonist is a semi-professional soccer player (footballer). Yes, the supporting cast is almost entirely made up of fellow or former soccer players. And there are certainly many scenes that take place on the field (pitch). In fact, I imagine a semi-comprehensive knowledge of the sport is significant in understanding what is going on with the action of the story. But such knowledge is not required: soccer is merely the conduit through which the story is presented. At its heart, A Natural is a story that skillfully tackles questions of gender roles and sexuality.
A Natural is an excellent blend of literature with sports. The last and only time I enjoyed a sporty story was for a similarly named book, Bernard Malamud's The Natural. Despite the similarities in name, the two books share little in common, aside from the sports theme and an exploration of the influence of others on ones fears and desires. Yet, without clear indication as to why, Raisin has named his book A Natural—is this a nod to the everyman role of Malamud's protagonist Roy Hobbs? I see the potential, but I don't have any solid answers.
Tom Pearman is the Roy Hobbs of A Natural. At nineteen years old, Tom is on the fence that separates tomorrow's bright young stars from the never-quite-did-make-it duds of yesterday. Tom himself is unsure of who he is and struggles to find his place amongst the competition, both on and off the field. Pearman and his fellow players are a wonderful cast. Though they many times fall into the stereotypes of professional players, they are not limited to this role.
I tore through this book. This may have just been a result of having the time to read, or it could've been that the story pulled me in. Either way, I was far from uninterested. I do feel that Raisin could've spent more time in the minds of the players and less on the pitch. The action sometimes takes over, and though it is important, it wouldn't have hurt the story by any means. My biggest disappointment with the novel came in the concluding scenes. Overall, the conclusion felt rushed. While the rest of the novel kept me fully engaged, it was in the final pages that my mind finally began to wander some. Having already made the comparison to The Natural, this is surely the biggest difference between the two novels. The greatest moment in Malamud's novel comes in those final pages, where we see Hobbs' decision play out. “Say it ain't so.” I expected something of equal weight with this one, but it just didn't play out that way, which was fine, but it was a mildly disappointing ending to an otherwise stellar story.
A Natural is probably one of the greatest novels I've read that deals with sexuality. It addresses the subject of men who do not conform to standard roles of masculinity and heterosexuality, but it approaches the subject from many different angles. It feels genuine and never relies on authorial manipulation. You see, you can define a man, slap a label on him, and expect him to play by the rules. But sometimes, people just don't play by the rules. Some of us watch football, some watch soccer, and some just play a different game all together. That's the core of this novel. A Natural is a novel written not only for the GLBT community, but for all who step out of societal norms, and maybe, just maybe, even for soccer fans (regardless of what they call themselves.)