I have a confession: I know nothing about football. So it’s a good thing this year’s Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award winner for an unpublished manuscript is about more than just that. Paul D. Carter’s Eleven Seasons is a grunge-era bildungsroman, an homage to working-class Melbourne and one young man’s undying love for the Hawks.
We meet Jason Dalton as a self-conscious pubescent whose first taste of football instils in him a sense of purpose and selfhood hitherto unfamiliar to him. But his single mother, Christine, is exhausted from nursing shift work, and fails to support him in his new passion. Absent from the crowd at his winning matches, she fixates on the game’s potential for violence and injury. As Jason stumbles into adulthood, their estrangement sees him lurch between feelings of guilt and resentment, with football the only release for his burning frustrations.
The story spans the ten years of 1985 to 1995 in two parts. It’s tinged with the same nostalgic notes as other recent Australian fiction – Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, Peter Twohig’s The Cartographer, Barry Divola’s Nineteen Seventysomething – while the careful peppering of musical references is reminiscent of Christos Tsiolkas. But despite its retrospective setting, the novel’s preoccupations are topical.
As a sports philistine, my limited understanding of football is influenced largely by the sorts of stories frequently splashed across the media about players’ off-field behaviour: accusations of drug abuse, violence and misogyny. These issues are central to Jason’s inner conflict as he negotiates who he is and who his father may be. Carter’s well-rounded portrait of his central character also invites the reader to challenge any of their own assumptions.
Many of the story’s climactic moments are familiar set pieces: the overworked parent who never shows at her child’s most important milestones; the teenage waywardness caused by an absent father; Jason’s sudden, emotional confession in the arms of a prostitute. Some of the plot turns are predictable, too: the revelation of his father’s identity, followed by an almost Oedipal fulfilment of events; and the eventual reconciliation Jason must seek in order to quiet the turmoil that has raged in him for years.
But for all that, the clichés also conceal some less obvious threads. The absent father may present itself as a central trope, but at the novel’s emotional core is Jason’s relationship with his mother, and with women more generally. While his coach Arnie may represent a quasi-father figure, Jason is uncomfortable in some male groups, sceptical of their sexist jibes. We feel in him a sensitivity, a sense of being different from the pack. And yet, when he is suspended for throwing a punch at another student over a girl, he is forced to evaluate his own masculinity.
Jason’s increasingly frequent arguments with his mother reflect a rising inner tension:
‘Right. I’m a thug footballer. You and everyone else reckon so. I’m a meathead with a ball. I’m dead weight.’ She’s so close he could throw out his hand and hit her. His chest feels ready to pop.
Aside from these outbursts, Jason struggles to articulate himself. A girlfriend dubs him ‘the ice-man’. Later, enduring a crucial moment with his mother: ‘He tries out a few questions in his head but decides to keep them there.’
Yet Jason’s gentler side is expressed elsewhere. In the second half of the novel, older and less agitated, he rescues a dog from his new housemate from hell. Dundee is mangy, abused and antisocial, but with a bit of TLC, Jason moulds him into a trusting, friendly pet: ‘He’s a different dog than he was last June.’ By then, we are invited to see, so is Jason.
There’s so much in this book it’s worthy of consideration for a VCE or HSC text list. Jason’s inner voice is as strong, compelling and oblique as Holden Caulfield’s. The use of third person narrative reflects his social unease as he negotiates a seemingly continuous onslaught of difficult home truths. For the most part, Carter’s vision is splendid, and it’s easy to see why this almost ten-year labour of love was picked as the winner of this always anticipated literary event.
Unfortunately, Carter’s execution doesn’t always complete the vision. The narrative is uneven in places, transitioning jerkily through dramatic or delicate events, while at other times lingering on prosaic or banal ones. Not all the characters are convincing, either: some present as little more than two-dimensional plot devices, while many of Christine’s contributions to the slinging matches between mother and son feel like unrealistic overreactions. At times I wanted to see her drawn more sympathetically, but this is perhaps an unfair criticism. After all, there are many contemporary novels about the travails of motherhood – here is a solid one about a son.
Hannah Francis is a bookseller and a postgraduate journalism student at RMIT. She sings in a band called Rah Rahs and blogs at culturedanimal.com.