I love football.
I know, it catches people off-guard that a sixty year old gay man is a massive football fan, but I’ve never subscribed to stereotypes. I love football, with an especial love for the college game (I used to only watch the Saints in the NFL, but have started rooting for the Cincinnati Bengals because, well, Joe fucking Burrow); I think everyone knows I am a massive LSU fan. (GEAUX TIGERS!)
There really isn’t anything else in the world like a Saturday night in Death Valley. I will remember the 2019 night game against Florida probably for the rest of my life. God, what a great game, and it was so much fun. I am aware that I am digressing.
Anyway, I grew up in a Southern football family (even if we didn’t live in the South, we were from the South and that’s all that matters), so it was inevitable that I should become both a football fan and a football player. I played all four years in high school, all of my cousins also played, and I have close relatives who played at both the college and professional levels (and I don’t mean some small college in the middle of nowhere; I mean in the SEC–Auburn and Alabama, and there may be even more that I don’t know about). I have relatives who were successful coaches. Every fall Saturday the television was tuned into whatever college game was playing–even if we weren’t fans of either team; it’s hard to imagine now with the 24/7 college football coverage, but when I was growing up ABC had a monopoly on all NCAA football games. They would usually play one game of national significance, and then the second game was regional–important to that region. As we did not live in the South, we rarely got to see SEC games other than Alabama–Alabama was almost inevitably the only Southern team of “national interest” throughout the 1970’s (I really don’t remember the 1960’s much, but we lived in Chicago so I imagine we saw a lot of Big Ten and Notre Dame games; I don’t really remember a lot of my life before the suburbs, really–some things, yes, but most things not so much)
I’ve never really read a lot of fiction about football, though; it inevitably winds up being something cliched and tired. I loved North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent; hated Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins; but do remember enjoying End Zone by Don DeLillo (I was going to reread this recently; but there’s so much to read. I did try to to reread Semi-Tough–but when I opened the book there were racial slurs and other mess on page one, so I threw it in the trash; no thanks). And I’ve also enjoyed other books with football involved, even if it wasn’t necessarily what the book was about. (The Hardy Boys were on the Bayport High football team in The Crisscross Shadow–the only time football is mentioned in the series.) There’s also a tendency, in books about high school and football to make the football players and cheerleaders the villains of the story, which has never really sat right with me. I was never bullied by anyone on the football team, and maybe the cheerleaders weren’t bitches to me because I was on the team and my sister was a cheerleader, but that wasn’t my experience (one thing I truly appreciated about Stephen King’s Christine was the horrible bullies at Libertyville High weren’t the football players but the hard-case kids–which was also my experience; which is probably yet another reason the book is one of my favorites of the King canon, methinks).
But…I can also see why it’s so attractive to make the jocks and cheerleaders the villains of high school dramas. And I sort of did something similar in #shedeservedit, didn’t I? Those boys on the Marysville and Steubenville high school teams certainly fit the bill of villainy.
So, when people started recommending Eli Cranor’s debut Don‘t Know Tough to me, I wasn’t so sure. I just published a book of my own about high school football and the toxicity it can engender in a small town (#shedeservedit), and revisiting my memories of high school and football was harder than I had thought it would be; I thought I could be dispassionate about it all while writing about it (I often write about things to try to distance myself from them and gain some perspective) but I was wrong. It was hard to write that book, much harder than I thought it would be–and it took years (first draft was written in 2015; published in 2022).
But enough people whose opinions I respect were raving about the book, so I got a copy and once I started reading it, there was no way I could stop.
Still feel the burn on my neck. Told Coach it was a ringworm this morning when he pick me up, but it ain’t. It a cigarette, or at least what a lit cigarette do when it stuck in your neck. Just stared at Him when He did it. No way I’s gonna let Him see me hurt. No way. bit a hole through the side of my cheek, swallowed blood, and just stared at Him. Tasted blood all day.
Tasted it while I saw in Ms. Miller’s class. Woke up in Algebra tasting it. Drank milk from a cardboard box at lunch and still, I tasted it. But now it eighth period football. Coach already got the boys lined up on either side of the fifty, a crease in between, a small space for running and tackling, for pain.
This my favorite drill.
I just been standing back here, watching the other boys go at it. The sound of pads popping like sheet metal flapping in a storm.
“Who want next?” holler Bull. Bull ain’t the head coach. Bull coach the defense. He as mean as they come.
One of my favorite books of all time about small towns is Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show (I also love the film, which is extraordinary and one of, in my opinion, the best films made during the 1970’s). I did try to reread it recently–I was interested in refreshing my memory of its gay subplots and the mental breakdown of poor Joe Bob Blanton, but I’d also forgotten the part about the bored teenaged boys decided to fuck some calves, so when I got to that part I put the book down in distaste. But now that I’ve finished Don’t Know Tough, I kind of want to go back and reread The Last Picture Show again (I can skip that distasteful part…weird that I didn’t remember it).
Don’t Know Tough is yet another incredibly impressive debut, further confirming the truth of what I said at the Lefty Award banquet–the last few years have seen so many amazing and diverse and extraordinary debuts that the future of our genre is in very good hands. I won’t lie–when I started reading the book, I wasn’t sure I could keep reading it; I was worried that the entire book would be written in that grammatically garbled first-person voice but as I kept reading that first chapter I got into the rhythm of the language and started seeing the beauty and fluidity of the style choice–which is no small feat to pull off, and pull off consistently, throughout the entire book…to the point I was also a little disappointed that the entire book wasn’t done in that same style. Billy Lowe is the character whose voice this is; and the story of the novel revolves around him and the horrific Shakespearean tragedy that his life actually is. His mother is an alcoholic, and lives with an abusive piece of shit who obviously directs violence at Billy. He has a younger half-brother who was fathered by this POS; he also has an older brother who lives elsewhere. Billy’s situation has turned him into a wild beast of rage with an exceptional gift for channeling that rage into playing football. He’s not big enough in size to go major college, but his coach feels like there’s a chance he could get a football scholarship to a smaller college, and break the cycle of poverty he is trapped in at the moment. Billy is exceptionally compelling–it’s hard to read his first person point of view and not have your heart break for this kid; and hope that it’s all going to work out for him in the end, despite the disturbing pattern of violence in both his life and behavior.
Denton High has made the Arkansas state play-offs, but without Billy in the backfield their chances of advancing are practically nil. It’s important for Denton to do well in the post season because their coach’s job depends on it. Trent Powers is a born-again Christian, whose last coaching job in California crapped out–winning only three games in his final three seasons before being fired. This job is another chance for him, even though his wife and daughters hate relocating to a small town in Arkansas from California (much is made throughout the book of Coach Powers’ Prius, seen by the locals are weird and strange and almost otherworldly and unmanly). Coach Powers also has a very soft spot for his star player, and not just because he’s a star player–he actually feels compassion for the horror the young player’s life has been up to that point, and he wants to help–even if Billy doesn’t want any help from anyone. Billy’s future, to Billy at any rate, is already set, and he’s not going to end up going anywhere or doing anything or having a good life and decent future. He doesn’t see himself being worthy of anything or of doing better than his assigned lot in life.
The Powers family is a direct contrast to Billy’s; loving and nurturing couple, raising two daughters and trying to do right by them. How far is too far to go when helping someone in Billy’s situation, is the question. Coach’s wife–the daughter of a successful football coach who took Trent in when he was a kid from a similar background as Billy’s…and yes, he slept with his coach’s daughter and got her pregnant. So both Coach and his wife have the fear that the same thing will happen to their daughter and Billy–especially when the daughter starts opening up to Billy.
But one night Billy’s abuser is murdered. No one would blame Billy for killing the abusive bastard–well, the law would. But the story of what happened that night is far more complicated, and far more surprising, than the reader can imagine.
The pacing is also exceptional, and I love the contrasts between the third person point of view we see much of the novel in, with the Billy point of view chapters mixed in. The language choices and imagery are spare and tight yet full and rich and immersive–reminding me not only of Megan Abbott and her brilliant Dare Me, but also with a healthy dash of Daniel Woodrell, Tom Franklin, S. A. Cosby, and Kelly J. Ford (all masters of Southern Gothic) mixed in. The little touches of how claustrophobic small Southern towns can be, the class disparities between the haves and the have nots, and what teenagers in those types of environments was simply masterful.
I was completely blown away by this amazing work, and suspect that you will be as well. Highly recommended. I cannot wait to see what Eli Cranor does next.