Go Your Own Way

Lovin’ you, isn’t the right thing to do…

Wednesday and pay-the-bills day. Yesterday–the return to the office–wasn’t terrific. My back hurt in the morning to the point where standing up and moving around was incredibly painful, even with the generic Ben-Gay slathered liberally over my lower back. I used my back massage-roller thing Monday night and it helped, but for whatever reason yesterday morning when I got to work I was in extreme pain. I hate this for me, frankly. One of my co-workers stopped by my desk and saw the tube of store-brand Ben-Gay sitting on my desk and said, “oh, I thought I smelled Ben-Gay” (technically incorrect) and I replied, “Yes, I now officially smell like old man. Yay for me.”

I also realized I didn’t pick up a copy of my own Bouchercon anthology while I was there. Seriously, how DO I still have a career?

My back is still achy this morning–I’ve used the back roller and did some stretches, and it feels somewhat better than it did yesterday–but I am going to bring the heating pad to work with me this morning and see how that goes. I hate this, seriously. But the improvement from yesterday is significant–I don’t wince when I move this morning, at least not yet–and so I will go on hoping that this will gradually clear up and not become a more permanent thing. I somehow managed to get through my work day yesterday despite the back pain and despite the extreme tiredness I was feeling, even managed to make groceries (insanely expensive, I might add) on my way home. Once I got home, I retired to my easy chair and the heating pad and just kind of vegetated while Scooter slept in my lap until Paul got home. (I did watch the first episode of The Serpent Queen while I waited for him; it’s really quite good, and of course, I’ve always been fascinated by Catherine de Medici–one of these days I am going to write a book about her ‘flying squadron’, beautiful young women she trained to seduce men and get secrets out of; how fun of a book would that be?) I was going to start reading the next Donna Andrews, or reread the Scotty work I’ve already done, but I suspect–not entirely incorrectly–that I am going to be very tired most of this week and as such probably won’t get around to doing a whole lot of writing or creating this week as I dig out from under with everything–I’m not even remotely finished with my emails, and may never be–and there are some odds and ends I need to get finished in the meantime.

I really need to make a to-do list this morning and get it all together. As always after a trip, I feel rather disconnected from my life again this morning (this week, really) and it inevitably takes me a couple of days to recalibrate back to my regular life (oh how I wish my mystery conference life was my regular life!) and start figuring out what needs to be done. Costco, of course, and a regular making groceries run (not just the scattershot drive-by I did yesterday on the way home from work); and of course, it IS Pay-the-Bills Day (hurray). Heavy heaving sigh. I also have short stories promised to people, methinks, that I need to get back to work on. There really is no end to being a Gregalicious, is there? Heavy HEAVING sigh.

The high from the weekend is also starting to wear off a little bit, but it was a very lovely reminder of why I love my genre community. I met some writers whom I really admire (Attica Locke, Karen Dionne, Eli Cranor, among many others) and got to hang out with dear friends and as I said, laughed and laughed until I actually ached from laughing, which is really quite marvelous. I think I am definitely going to go to Crime Bake in November up in Boston (suburbs); I won’t be traveling quite as often or as regularly next year, alas, but am hoping to make it to Malice in April and then of course, Bouchercon rolls around again in the fall in San Diego. I’ve not really looked into what games are this weekend–I know LSU plays Mississippi State at night in Death Valley, which gives me most of the day to errand and clean and all of that lovely stuff–and I am not sure when the Saints game is on Sunday (noon, probably, but who knows?) and so hopefully I won’t spend the weekend vegetating (all of the time at any rate), but you never know. I do need some down time to recuperate, so I may just have Costco delivered and order the groceries for pick-up (I may make a Mississippi roast this weekend, or whatever it is called; I can get a very lovely rump roast at the Fresh Market meat counter).

The weather has been beautiful, too, since we arrived back. This unusual cool September weather is very similar to what it was like up in Minneapolis, and the weather (with the exception of one day) during the weekend was stunningly beautiful; I spent as much time outside as I could do so logically.

And on that note, Constant Reader, I am going to head into the spice mines and get to work. Happy Wednesday, all, and I will check in with you again tomorrow.

Chick-a-Boom (Don’t Ya Jes’ Love It)

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 Dont 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.

I’ve Found Someone of My Own

Ah, Tuesday, and so much to get done. Heavy heaving sigh.

What else is new? I am trying my hardest not to give in to that overwhelmed feeling I am currently experiencing this morning; I even woke up before the alarm, but while still a bit on the groggy side, I must confess I actually feel rested this morning. We’ll see how long that lasts, but I hope to be able to ride that feeling through the day and get a lot done; at the very least, check things off the list (which is really growing and more than a little out of control). I worked on my story a bit last night–Paul was out having dinner with a friend–and also managed to finish Eli Cranor’s Don’t Know Tough, which I have a lot of thoughts about; I just have to get them cleared up in my head and maybe digest them a bit more. I really enjoyed the book, if you’re wondering; it’s very well done and tightly, beautifully written, with more than a few hints of Megan Abbott, Daniel Woodrell, and some Kelly J. Ford tossed in for good measure. It’s definitely an excellent addition to the canon of Southern rural noir, that’s for sure.

I now have to decide what to read next, and that’s not going to be easy. There are some other amazing and well-reviewed and award-nominated debuts still in my TBR pile. (DAMN, I could have made that a project: The Debut Novel Extravaganza!)

I did some work, as I said, on the short story yesterday; it’s still nowhere near a complete first draft but that’s okay; it will get there eventually, and there’s always this weekend (I am going to be deeply panicked this weekend, pushing to get a lot of things finished before heading off to New York next Tuesday) but that’s okay; I don’t mind. I have to only work on Monday next week, and then have the rest of the week off to travel and do the Edgar banquet and everything else I have to do while I am in New York next week, but even just thinking about it makes me feel very tired. Heavy heaving sigh. But there’s naught to be done but to start tackling the list, is there? After all, ignoring the list only makes it grow exponentially larger…as I have often learned to my great dismay.

So, I feel good this morning. We’ll see how this day plays out as it goes forward, won’t we? I will try very hard to not allow myself to get sidetracked and distracted as I go through my day at the office; I will also need to swing past the mail on my way home from work today–I think more books are waiting for me there, to be completely honest–and when I get home I am going to try to keep my head down, make a protein shake, and spend a few more hours with my short story. I am also getting very excited about my trip to New York next week–although the infection numbers there are not a little unsettling, and the lifting of the mask mandate on airplanes by an unqualified judge isn’t very pleasing for me, either. But I can take rapid tests along with me so Paul and I can test each other every day, and of course, I will definitely have to take one before I return to the office the following Tuesday.

I am trying not to think about the potential irresponsibility of going on this trip, to be honest.

But overall, I think I’ve recovered from the trip to Left Coast at long last–it took longer than necessary–and hopefully I have this New York trip planned perfectly so that there will be recovery time before I have to return to the office.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader, and I will talk to you some more tomorrow.

Sweet and Innocent

Well, that was a morning, was it not?

I took today off for appointments, and as is my usual wont, tried to cram in as many as possible on the same day to save paid time off. So far today I’ve been to the West Bank, the North Shore, and Metairie, but am now safely home and ready to kick it back and get to work on this massive to-do list I somehow have managed to avoid for most of the weekend. (I justified my utter and complete laziness this weekend on being home for the weekend and it being my first weekend at home after a trip; justification can always be found, frankly. I have a PhD in it, methinks, or at least should) But I feel relatively good, despite having to get up so early this morning for the trip to the West Bank (oil change at my dealership, before a trip out to the North Shore and…well, you already know the rest). I took along Eli Cranor’s stunning debut novel, Don’t Know Tough, to read in various waiting rooms, and it is actually a most marvelous read. I finished Marco Carocari’s Blackout over the weekend, which was also a lovely read, and we did a lot of binge-watching. We finished watching Why Didn’t They Ask Evans, which we rather enjoyed, and then moved on to get caught up on Servant, which is actually rather disturbing yet compulsively watchable.

I did manage to get some writing done this weekend–I really don’t know why it is like pulling teeth these days, but it is, and I guess I just have to learn how to live with that, really. I did have an easier time with the first draft of a first chapter that was more of a “let me try this, I’ve been thinking about this project for a really long time and since nothing else seems to be flowing, it can’t hurt…” but that’s not what I need to be worrying about at the moment, is it? I really need to get this short story finished, and I don’t know why I am having so much trouble with it here, to be honest. It’s got a great title, it’s an interesting idea, and I just have to get the tone and voice perfectly right for it to work…but I don’t know if I am having imposter syndrome symptoms or what, but this story has really been a struggle for me.

Who knows? Maybe now that I’ve admitted it publicly, maybe the story will start flowing when I get back to it today. One can certainly hope, at any rate…I’ve also been trying to write an entry about the fifth season of Elité, with little success. It is probably one of my favorite shows of all time–and after a disappointing fourth season, it was great seeing the writers and producers kick the show back into that high gear it operated under its first three seasons. Season 4, to give credit where it’s due, was not going to be an easy one to pull off; replacing the characters that left the show in the wake of Season 3 (Polo, Lu, Carla, and Nadia) wasn’t going to be easy, and the new characters were basically made the focal point of the show in season 4 when we didn’t really know much about them. I did give them a break–it’s hard to introduce so many new characters into a cast and integrate them into existing storylines while giving them their own–but it was still a bit disappointing. Season 5 spring-boarded off season 4, though, and much of the drama in the new season had its roots in the past season…but they did a much better job integrating the new characters–Ivan, Isadora, Cruz, and Balil–then they did the new characters in Season 4. (Okay, well, they kind of forgot about Balil in the final episodes–I don’t think we even saw him again after the body turned up in Episode 4, and Omar didn’t really have much of a story; so I am thinking he is one of those not returning for season 6)

But I will say this: episode 5 of season 5 of Elité has one of the most erotic and authentic gay sex scenes I’ve ever seen on television or in film; it’s almost borderline porn. It was so lovingly and beautifully shot; the soundtrack music was perfect; and it brought tears to my eyes. (Similar to the scene in It’s a Sin when the main character is about to bottom for the first time and his partner tells him he needs to wash up first–I laughed and got teary-eyed; both scenes will certainly be talked about should I ever teach another erotica writing class or workshop) I know, I know, I’ve been screaming to the clouds about Elité since we first started watching it way back in the Before Times.

Heavy heaving sigh.

And now I am going to head back into the spice mines and see if I can’t get a draft of that story finished today. Wish me luck, Constant Reader–I’ll let you know tomorrow how it went.