Being a World Cup year, 2010 almost by necessity has seen a a flurry of soccer cash in books, timed to make the most of the mainstream Australian public's quadrennial interest in the round ball game. There is a pleasing difference this year however – for some reason Australian publishers have seen fit to take a chance on fictional takes on the game as opposed to the usual hackneyed biographies and hastily written histories.
Already Adrian Deans (Mr Cleansheets) and Neil Humphreys (Match Fixer) have had their soccer related novels released this year – now it's Tony Wilson's turn to take a stab at the genre, with his second novel Making News. I fancy that most readers of this review, should they be familiar with Wilson's work, will know him best by Australia United, his memoir of the 2006 World Cup. Making News however, has far more in common with his debut novel Players, his hilarious and surgical dissection of Melbourne's Australian rules culture, particularly how its media wing has made gods of otherwise mere mortals who take part in a decidedly provincial and suburban hobby.
Indeed, Making News is very much like Players in its style and scope, which may or may not put off readers of that work. Admittedly there was much trepidation on my part even after getting a fair start on the book, but what wins one over is Wilson himself. Wilson's writing style has been likened to Ben Elton's – perhaps due to their penchant for clever metaphors and conspiracies which soar ever higher into the realms of absurdity – but where Elton would be best described as a comedian dabbling in books, Wilson is clearly a novelist with a keen sense of humour. His prose is measured, letting his situations explain themselves without Elton's 'look at how witty and clever I am' style; his timing and restraint is delightful, building suspense and deploying his punchlines in an effortless manner.
The novel centres on Lucas Dekker, the offspring of celebrity power couple Charlie Dekker and his wife Monica. Charlie is perhaps the greatest Socceroo of all time, a national hero, who at the end of his career has found himself in the well trodden path of many a professional athlete – desperate for cultural relevance but without the means to do so now that he's retired, and forced into plugging razor blades. Monica is a self-help guru who has sold millions of books, specialising in cliché ridden mass-produced fodder dealing in family values, while her own marriage is plagued by accusations of infidelity.
Both Charlie and Monica despise the fact that they are tabloid fodder, but reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's famous maxim, that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, the Dekkers are also reliant on the media for giving them an outlet to maintain their relevance and further their careers. Charlie in particular is distraught when Lucas wins a traineeship with The Globe, a particularly vile Red Top who had once attempted to imply that Charlie was part of a gay sex scandal. Making News therefore is not a soccer novel per se – it is much more about celebrity ego, and the lengths both the subjects of tabloid news and those who write for them will go to control the images that get placed into the public sphere. Wilson stresses the symbiotic nature of this arrangement, while tending to gloss over and forgive the consumer at the end of the supply chain.
Where Players was happy to create an entirely fictionalised world, albeit while basing many of its key characters on well known Australian rules identities, Making News seeks to rewrite history itself. Australia does not lose to Italy in Kaiserslautern – Fabio Grosso's penalty claim is denied, and Charlie scores twice in extra time to send Australia through to the next round. Sepp Blatter even apologises to the unfairly vanquished Italians. Various actual Socceroos, FFA CEO Ben Buckley and even George Negus appear in the work.
Underneath the levity, and even beyond the range of his black humour, Wilson seems to bear some deep seated grudges. The injustices go deeper than that day in Kaiserslautern – they often feel personal. Wilson does not have a soccer background; indeed he is steeped in Aussie rules culture. His father Ray was a member of Hawthorn's 1971 VFL premiership team, and Tony himself for a time was on Hawthorn's list, albeit never making a senior appearance. It's these facts that make one ponder how much Lucas, a failed athlete but more than competent writer, is an attempt by Wilson to perhaps express his anger at his inability to be what his father was and perhaps wanted him to be.
If the story falls over at any point, compared to Players at least, is that it's not quite as plausible as Wilson's debut. London and its cast of characters seem impossibly small; the villains more broad; the balance of the teenagers' naivety and maturity leaning too much towards the latter. But these are minor quibbles. Wilson once again showcases his talent in creating alternative worlds which are often frighteningly plausible. Making News is a blackly comic novel tempered by just enough sweetness to allow readers to keep turning the pages, with broad themes that should attract a diverse readership – it's certainly deserving of that audience.