A book for all seasons

Surely there is nothing sweeter than writing about a book about a teenager obsessed with the Hawthorn Football Club, only three days after your club has beaten them in an upset – a result that keeps your side undefeated and at the top of the ladder.

Okay, I am exaggerating slightly here. The book, Eleven Seasons, is not only about a teenager’s obsession with Hawthorn; it’s more about him growing into manhood, struggling with not knowing who his father is, and his mother working double shifts as a nurse to buy them a home in the Dandenongs on the outskirts of Melbourne. Eleven seasons of football and eleven seasons of finding out who you are.

I received a copy of the book as a guest of Allen & Unwin publishers at the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award in Sydney last week. It’s the most prestigious and lucrative award for an unpublished manuscript in Australia — $20,000 for an author aged under 35. The book was published on the day of the awards, and available in the shops the next morning. The awards night is always a special occasion. You get to catch up with people you haven’t seen for a while, like the A & U Executive Chairman, Patrick Gallagher; Alan Stevns of Vogel’s (guests also received some lovely Vogel’s cereal!); Stephen Romei, the literary editor of The Australian, booksellers like Scott Whitmont of Lindfield Bookshop, publicists like Debbie McInnes and writers like David Marr, Robyn Williams of the ABC, and meet new ones like Paul D. Carter, the winner of the award for Eleven Seasons, and Manisha Jolie Amin, author of Dancing to the Flute (more of her book next week). Author John Birmingham gave an excellent speech on the night, and was very critical of the cancelling of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards by Campbell Newman. I wrote about the 30th anniversary of the Australian/Vogel awards last year (here’s a link: http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-k ), so it’s back to the book now.

I told Paul Carter that the Sydney Swans would beat Hawthorn last Saturday, and he pointed out he was a Collingwood supporter. Oops. But he does write well about Australian Rules and what it feels like to be at a Grand Final – the Hawks’ 6th in a row in 1988 – when they win: “Jason is standing on his seat when it happens and the crowd reaction almost lifts him to the sky. He raises his arms to God, his voice a static hiss. Victory.”

But Jason Dalton is also a troubled teenager, and his relationship with his mother is ambiguous. He loves her, but he gets angry when she doesn’t want him to play football: “He pushes his face into the darkness below his knees, tunnelling away from his room and into the small tight place where no-one else can go, the cave he keeps inside himself.”

And he climbs out of his cave on the footy field, where the novelist shines in his portrayal of what it feels like to be really good as a player: “He’s faster than every other player on the ground and can pass with both feet. Whenever his teammates are in trouble, they look for him. He can find room to kick even when he’s tackled. He protects his teammates when they have the ball and always tells them where he is. At training, the coach points out the way he plays and tells his teammates to use him as a role model.” This, from a student whose English teacher tells him: “You’re always a million miles away. This is Year Eight, mate, not Grade Five. You ought to take a look at yourself.” If only Jason could be as successful in the classroom as he is on the footy field.

It took nine years for Paul Carter to finish the novel, and that’s not surprising, given that he’s an English teacher in a Melbourne high school and was working on his PhD as well. And his editors kept throwing material back at him, asking for rewrites to develop Jason’s character. He told The Australian: “A point about teaching is that the best way to get someone to learn is to get them to do tasks just beyond their ability. That’s what the editorial team at Allen & Unwin did for me.”  It worked. This is Jason thinking about his place in life: “People like his mum are going to keep battling, and people like Darren are going to get straight As and be successful, and people like Hayden are going to be rich no matter what they do. Everyone has a place.” And this is Jason describing his mother in a family photo album: “There’s always a lone candle in the centre of her birthday cakes and she doesn’t label her age on these photos as she does his. Whenever she’s alone in a picture, her smile isn’t her good one.”

It’s his absent father who is the key to Jason’s quest to find his identity, and the ending, which I won’t give away, is extremely moving, with an epilogue you have to read.

Eleven Seasons may have taken nine years to write, but it was worth every minute for this reader (and 20 grand for the author). A well chiselled, gritty novel, it will make many parents think about the relationship they have with their children, especially graffiti-writing, sports-loving sons. Jason Dalton’s relationships with his girlfriends are also interesting, given the friction with his mother and the macho sport he loves; and Carter paints a series of credible portraits of the women in Jason’s life.

And even though I am a Sydney Swans supporter, I can recommend the book to Hawthorn fans, even though it’s not really a novel about football. Paul Carter knows his footy and Jason’s beloved Hawks well and remembers the 1980s when Hawthorn was as lethal a club as its captain Leigh Matthews, aka Lethal, of course. One of my former executive producers, Neil Mooney, will never believe I just wrote that. Yes, you guessed it, he’s a Hawthorn supporter.

Eleven Seasons by Paul D. Carter; Allen & Unwin, 274 pages, $29.99

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