Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 4, 2014

The Family Men, by Catherine Harris

Way back in 2010, when I reviewed Catherine Harris’s debut collection of short stories, I wrote this:

Harris is interested in how people ‘misbehave’ and the internal struggle between the good and the bad self, and her settings in the workplace provide wry opportunities for duality.

And I also expressed my fervent hope that she would one day express her dexterity in subverting reader expectations in a novel.

Never did I imagine that she would subvert my expectations as she has!

The Family Man, you see, is a splendid novel that explores misbehaviour on a grand scale and offers an intense study of internal moral conflict  – but the workplace Harris exposes is the world of football!

I admit it, my heart sank.  I am So Not Interested in football that I have a pair of ear-rings from the Anti Football League – which I never wear because they would remind me of football.  But as some readers may remember, I have reviewed a couple of other books involving sport.  Yes, I read Ron Elliot’s Spinner; and Chinaman the Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka.  I’ve also read The Gift of Speed by Steven Carroll, though that was before this blog. Ok, they were about cricket not football but these games are basically the same, men running about in pursuit of a ball, and still I enjoyed these novels.  I enjoyed them for precisely the same reason that I liked The Family Men – because they weren’t really about sport at all.

The Family Men tackles the ugly celebrity culture that protects appalling behaviour by high profile sportsmen.  Harry Furey is football royalty: his father was a champion, and so is his brother who revels in the superstar status that goes with football dynasties.  But Harry is not like his brother, he doesn’t take easily to the adulation, and he’s not comfortable with the loyalty that’s demanded of him, not when that loyalty means keeping quiet about things that bother him.   The trouble is, he does love to play footy.

What is clear to him, and has always been clear to him, is that ‘play’ is all he has ever wanted to do.  It has never been about anything else.  Not the attention nor the accolades, the false gods of statistics and popularity contests (winning the Best and Fairest three years running, tallying his weekly Brownlow votes, narcissistic displays of showmanship); his is an unvarnished vocation.  Pure. Unbred. He lives and breathes football.  (p.29)

The novel is written entirely from Harry’s perspective, interspersed with the naïve thoughts of an un-named girl.  This girl hovers in the reader’s consciousness throughout the novel, just as she hovers in Harry’s.  The club can mandate the mantra what happens at Sportsman’s Night stays at Sportsman’s Night as much as it likes, but Harry can’t get this girl out of his head.  Nightmares torment him.  Anxiety torments the reader.  Did he, or didn’t this young man sexually assault this girl, rape her or gang bang her?  He doesn’t know, and neither do we because booze and drugs and issues of consent muddy the waters.

Harry is a complex character, nice enough for readers to feel uncomfortable about judging him too harshly, sufficiently careless of his would-be girlfriend for readers to be antagonised by the way he uses women.  Fat, foolish Rosie dreams of glamorous dresses on the award ceremony’s catwalk.  She fantasises about being by Harry’s side as the paparazzi trail him.  *snort* That’s not part of Harry’s plan:

They sit through nearly two hours of The Devil Wears Prada.  Ladies choice. The girls’ rapt faces flickering before Anne Hathaway’s simpering attempts to impress her vicious boss, played by Meryl Streep, while he and Pete and Pete’s mate, Chris, wait it out (junk time), such is the price of consensual sex.  (p. 185) 

Consensual sex with a young woman who’s infatuated not with Harry but by the glamour that surrounds a celebrity sportsman, is one thing.  But the reader knows how young the un-named girl is, though Harry doesn’t.  He can see how young she is, but that aspect of so-called consensual sex doesn’t enter his head.

What else would Harry have told her if he could have, aside from ‘Go home’?  ‘Get out while you can’? He’s not sure.  And who’s to say she would have listened anyway?  She may have been perfectly happy doing what she was doing.  Wasn’t that always the comeback, that it was the individual’s right to choose?  Who was he to judge her lifestyle, to interfere?  That’s what Jack would have said, he was pretty sure of it.  And Eddy.  And Laurie.  And Matt.  And probably his dad too, or at least he would have back when he was still playing.  Harry was the one with the problem.  Harry was the one with the issue.  And maybe they were right.  Maybe what happened with the girl didn’t matter.  And what he’d done didn’t matter either.  It was simply a question of perspective, a decision to be made, his choice to press reset and everything would return to normal.  (p. 93)

I haven’t read Anna Krein’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport (also published by Black Inc) but I’ve read the reviews.  Catherine Harris has used fiction to traverse similar territory, and this excerpt exemplifies the pressures coming to bear on this young man.  In his family, and in the broader ‘football family’, his doubts are out-of-step with the norm, a norm which is at variance with the values of our society but which is brushed under the carpet because of the celebrity manhood of its perpetrators.

There is much, much more to this novel than I have outlined here, (I haven’t even mentioned what goes on with his father!) and I think it would make a great choice for discussion groups.

PS  Hint: if you make a note of the Stonnington ‘untitled’ Literary Festival dates in your diary,  you can join the conversation.

Author: Catherine Harris
Title: The Family Men
Publisher: Black Inc, 2014
ISBN: 9781863956833
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author.

Availability

Fishpond: The Family Men
Or direct from Black Inc (including eBooks)


Responses

  1. Thanks to you I’ve just picked up Harris’ short story collection from the library. As soon as ‘The Family Men’ hits the shelves I’ll be reading it too. I’m fascinated by complex explorations of the alpha male mindset (liked Night Games, adore Patrick O’Brian!) but I’m not at all sure about what that says about my own psychological make-up…

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    • LOL sometimes are reading choices can be very revealing! I am unrepentant about checking out the bookshelves when I visit… (Just in case I’m in the house of an axe-murderer or something…)

      Like


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