At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that Eleven Seasons was just another book about a young footy star doing his thing and discovering more about himself as a result. Sports narratives generally focus on the triumphalist - a season serves as a mirror, showing how sticking to your guns/following your heart/never giving up will see you rise and see success in your life. Makes sense, right? But this type of story doesn't win a Vogel prize, as Eleven Seasons claim to have done.
In the first few chapters, Eleven Seasons threatens to follow this vein - a moody adolescent lives with his single mother and sees football as both a passion and an escape from his miserable everyday life. However littered throughout these opening stages are hints of things to come, with the casual racism and misogyny of schoolboys, the class boundaries and the undercurrents of 'macho culture' that is already rearing its ugly head in the seemingly innocent world of schoolboy footy. What follows promises to serve as a juicy juxtaposition between To Kill A Mockingbird and Specky Magee...
Initially, we are immersed in the mind of an incommunicative teenager, confused about his lot in life and certain about just one thing - he was put on the earth to play football. It appears as though he is only fully worthy on the field and without it, things would become unstuck. As the book progresses, however, it becomes apparent that football can as much break a man as it can make it man - indeed, the 'football culture' is responsible for a dark secret in his mother's life, one which consumes Jason some years later. Football, the stresses of his day-to-day reality and self-expectations and a new group of 'cool' friends are responsible for his gradual decline, resulting in ejection from the very team he idolised and fought to hard to be a part of. From this point, the hinted inevitabilities are realised and Jason descends into a dark spiral of parties and drugs which results in the disintegration of his relationship with his mother and throws his future and everything he has strived for into doubt. At this point, you don't know whether to feel sorry for Jason or to scream at him to realise the consequences of his actions and to stop being such a narrow-minded boofhead.
When Jason returns in part 2 after a few lost years in the Gold Coast, he is still firmly entrenched in the male-worshipping culture that surrounded him in his adolescence, although this half of the book concerns him trying to make amends and trying to get his life back on track. He is still haunted by the remnants of his past life, but is focused on righting the wrongs and doing the best he can with the opportunities he is given. Football now returns as a medium by which to achieve this and while he does not quite rekindle his former passion, it certainly serves as an important part of his life - after all, it is all he knows. This part of the story becomes either 'nice' or 'soft' (depending on your mindset), as Jason attempts to fix his broken life and heal old wounds, including re-establishing his relationship with his mother. it is a mark of Paul D. Carter's skill that he is able to write about Jason in a way that is both accessible and understandable, as we are let deep into his tortured mind and even start to feel a little sorry for him. We begin to understand his predicament, its affects on his behaviour and the complexities of the adolescent mind are made clear. As a teenager reading the book, I was very impressed by Carter's ability to get inside Jason's head and accurately present the tangled rush of emotions and changes that occur during adolescence.
Even though this book appears to be aimed towards a young adult market, it has much to offer adult readers with a taste for thoughtful fiction about emotions and relationships in the vein of Elliot Perlman or Julian Barnes. Certainly it presents sides of the sporting culture and brute facts about growing up that are often ignored, un-noticed or hushed away, bringing to the fore the fragility of the 'football fantasy' and the destructive facets of this fantasy world. It is no small testament to Carter's abilities that he has been able to explore these issues in a book that even Jason would finish.
Eleven Seasons? Eleven fast-flowing chapters - a river sometimes smooth, sometimes turbulent, but constantly engaging.