Melbourne, 1985. Jason Dalton sits on his bed and counts his football cards, dreaming of the day he too is immortalised in the public eye. He’s young and gifted, a natural player who can do anything with the ball in his hand. If only everything else in his life was as obvious to him as playing. Gold Coast, 1991. The bottom has fallen out of Jason’s life; he’s now a high-school dropout, tired and wasted on the Gold Coast, with an explosive family secret still ringing in his ears. He needs to get his life back. But first he needs to find out who he is.
by Imogen Dewey
Paul Carter’s Eleven Seasons is a great read, and certainly seems like a deserving winner of the Australian/Vogel’s literary award (for best unpublished manuscript by an author under 35). Importantly, for a book almost entirely concerned with sport and its role in Australian masculinity, it manages to be incredibly engaging for readers who are neither male, nor particularly involved in sport (i.e. me).
The novel is essentially the coming-of-age tale of Melbourne schoolboy Jason Dalton. His mother works long hours as a nurse to support them both on her own, and a lack of parental attention, and especially of a male role model, rings loudly throughout the book. Jason finds his home in the rough companionship and exhilaration of sport. He is not only a feverish Hawthorne supporter, but is blessed with a natural talent for football, and pins his hopes and identity onto the game. As the Hawks wins season after season, Jason’s own talent continues to bloom as he navigates the difficulties of growing up in the inner suburbs of Melbourne in the 1980s. But this story is no fairy-tale of underprivileged boy making good. Carter is determined to explore the violence and fragility that underpin the Australian male psyche, and so will not let things pan out so simply.
Australian chief literary critic, and Vogel Prize judge Geordie Williamson highlights Carter’s unravelling of what is arguably the Great Australian Dream, that of physicality, success, and overwhelmingly of male companionship:
The boy’s identification with the Hawks is not just an instance of fandom. It represents a hitching of oneself, in all its unrealised potential, to the promise of a success without end. The 11 seasons of the title are a melancholy reminder that there is no such thing, for a football team or a young man with high hopes.
Without revealing too much of the plot, what Williamson hints at here, and what Jason, painfully, discovers, is that there are stark gaps in the version of manhood to which he aspires. Jason’s mother, for reasons we are initially unsure of, is quietly and determinedly opposed to his obsession with football. He is repeatedly frustrated by her ambivalence toward his one passion. He is an engaging and sympathetic hero. We want him to reach his dreams – and with him, we keenly feel his increasing sense of alienation from his mother. Carter’s real skill begins to emerge here, as gradually, and through Jason’s eyes, he reveals a seamier and drearier side to Australian masculinity, and its problematic relationship to women.
What Carter reveals, as Jason moves within arms reach of his goals, is not simply the chance and fragility in the Australian model of masculine success, but its direct tension with individual integrity. As Williamson notes however, Carter has not given us a negative novel. Eleven Seasons is a vibrant, fascinating and ultimately hopeful picture of the heart of Australian culture and its potential – in both directions – for the individual.
Eleven Seasons* is out now in paperback ($24.95) and ebook ($14.95).
Read a sample here.
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