Mal Peet's Keeper (2003) was a recommendation from a friend, who referred to it as the book that made him into a writer. He's a very good writer, so that's one hell of an endorsement. And he was right: Keeper is a terrific book, combining the known mechanics of sport with a type of ecological mysticism. It is a ghost story, a coming of age tale and a fantasy that's uniquely its own.
El Gato is the best football player in the world: a goalkeeper that's completely without peer. He's just won the World Cup, and, throughout Keeper, that ugly/beautiful trophy is always within our field of view. Keeper is structured as an interview - the reclusive El Gato is baring his soul to journalist Paul Faustino. Faustino, originally just keen on a few pretty pictures and some quotes, realises that he's bitten off more than he can chew, as El Gato's story goes all night, and into the morning.
The keeper talks about his childhood as a gangly child living in a forester's camp. He and the other children would play football while the men trudged off into the jungle for the dangerous (underpaid, slightly terrifying) job of a cutting down trees. El Gato is not particularly talented as a child - and after humiliation after humiliation, he swears off football. To kill time, he takes longer and longer walks in the forest, and there, he meets a ghost: a ghost that teaches him to be a keeper.
The premise is unquestionably ridiculous, and Peet wisely sets up Faustino as the voice, or ears, of reason. Even as El Gato walks through his training regime avec phantasm, Faustino wonders if his 'exclusive' will be that the world's greatest goalkeeper is insane. But El Gato speaks calmly and clearly, and, as the story goes on, both Faustino and the reader are gradually convinced of the truth.
El Gato comes of age in the logging camp - he follows his father to work (what else can he do?), and his talent is eventually revealed in the weekly football matches with the adults. A kind-hearted foreman and an opportunistic club owner become involved, and, against all odds, El Gato is given the opportunity to leave the forest and see the world. (Given that he begins the book holding the World Cup, this is hardly a spoiler.)
Keeper - and, by extension, football - is imbued with a spirituality that would be easy to mock if it weren't done so damn well. Sports are often used as a metaphor, for heroism, war, community, sacrifice, but are very rarely treated with dignity in and of themselves. In Keeper, Peet presents the reader with a football story that isn't just about scoring that really important goal, but a story that connects the intangible aspects of the game with the bigger picture. Being a keeper is about knowing your territory and owning it, it is about falling gracefully, it is about reading other players, it is about seeing the entirety of the field. Those same traits that make El Gato a great keeper are the same traits that make him, ultimately, a great man.
An earlier version of this review first appeared on Pornokitsch (November 2013).