Book Review: The Night of the Virgin
The Night of the Virgin by Elliott Turner
Published by Round Ball Media LLC
A notable element of the football blogging scene when we started The Two Unfortunates in 2009 was the heavy representation of outstanding North American writers. Aside from the venerable Two Hundred Percent, still going strong after a decade, Spirit of Mirko (then called Mirko Bolesan) and Llandudno Jet Set, the websites we drew inspiration from were located to the west of the Sargasso Sea.
Among these, Pitch Invasion, Run of Play and Richard Whittall’s A More Splendid Life were prominent, but Elliott Turner’s Futfanatico was also a very strong influence. Never less than excellently written, it’s been no surprise that Turner has gone on to forge himself a wider writing career, both via The Guardian, The Blizzard and other outlets but also via the longer format of the printed book.
Turner’s first novel, The Night of the Virgin is only partly a book about football although it uses the game to explore sociocultural themes. The hero of the book is a young soccer player Manny, whom we first encounter laid up in bed in a hospital ward after a horrific leg break. A midfielder of no little ability, Manny is a kind of lo-rent Juan-Roman Riquelme, a talented but somewhat static presence on the pitch perhaps unsuited to the modern game. When he finally makes it to the top flight of Mexican soccer, the Liga MX, he typically manages to last for only the first seventy minutes of a given game while most of his career is spent in the lower divisions in the US and south of the border.
Manny arrived in the States illegally as a kid so thoughts of crossing back into Mexico are always fraught with nerves. The action in the novel shifts back and forth chronologically and is organised into four parts. Short, two page chapters characterise the first half of the novel before giving way to an amusing party scene, full of whip crack dialogue and the gauche worries of the attendees in which one of Manny’s best pals, Hector is revealed to be gay. The novel concludes with a series of pensive monologues from various points in Manny’s life.
There are some memorable characters – Hector himself who we assume is some kind of hetero Lothario before his sexuality is revealed, ‘El Toro’ a former Liga MX star with a mullet now living in a trailer park, a Honduran footballer who objects at being labelled ‘negro’ in a nod to the Luis Suarez affair and an English manager, Terry Hodgson who one imagines with a curly perm and unconvincing ‘tache but who has plenty of larrup. Bizarrely, he and Manny end up in Acapulco which reminded me of Phil Collins living it up in the video to The Four Tops’ Loco in Acapulco.
A constant highlight for me is Turner’s strong grasp of the Texan locale, with forays to California and Mexico itself. Various parts of the action take place in the smaller cities of McAllen and Brownsville and the larger metropolises, Houston and San Antonio. The Rio Bravo serves as a physical and psychological marker and it’s a land of drive-thru businesses and decrepit motels. At one point, we are treated to a hilariously glib rundown of the main protestant creeds – Churches of Christ are portrayed as always being ‘close to army bases, along with pawn shops, payday lenders and tattoo parlours’.
A feature of the novel that will divide readers perhaps are the constant bursts of untranslated Spanish. Personally, I loved this aspect – I only have a basic command of the language but the phraseology adds texture to the novel and build on some of the themes Turner explored in a previous book, An Illustrated Guide to Soccer and Spanish. It’s also a satisfying literary device in a novel where the influence of Junot Diaz is apparent, especially in the first two parts while the likes of David Foster Wallace get a mention and Manny’s ne’r do well wife rejoices in the name of Albertine Blume.