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 Always Been Crazy

Yesterday was rough. I was so tired all day, but somehow I managed to power through it all–God only knows how. It wound up not being that bad of a day, to be honest–although I kind of just drifted through the day and don’t really remember a whole lot of it, if I’m being completely honest.

But I am still so damned proud of the LSU Tigers. National champions, again. Just amazing, absolutely amazing. What an amazing season, what a fabulous joy ride for us LSU fans. This team will be remembered forever, just like the 1958 national champions are still talked about today. The entire season was a non-stop highlight reel.

Carnival this year is going to be lit.

And now it’s back to reality–although none of that feels quite real yet.

Tomorrow morning I leave for a short weekend in New York; I return to New Orleans on Sunday, and of course Monday is a holiday so I have a day to relax and recalibrate and recover from what is certain to be an exhausting trip; New York always wears me out. I’ll be busy the entire time–it’s a business trip–so making time to see friends isn’t really going to work out this trip; but I should be returning in late April/early May and maybe that trip I’ll be able to see and hang out with friends–I know so many people in New York it’s scary; I could go up for weeks and not see everyone.

But I slept really well last night–I was exhausted, so no real surprise there–and feel rested enough this morning to be able to focus and get back on the get-shit-done train. I need to swing by this morning and get the mail on my way to the office, and I should be getting started packing this morning, as well as cleaning the kitchen. I’ll have to leave for the airport tomorrow morning around eight–flight is at eleven, and have to account for traffic and shuttle from the parking lot to the terminal, so I won’t really have time tomorrow morning to do much more than drink some coffee and shower.  I need to make some headway on a new secret project–which I am focusing on to the exclusion of all other writing, at least for now, and I hope to have it all finished by next week so I can get back to finishing Bury Me in Shadows–and I am taking The Talented Mr. Ripley with me to read, along with Blanche on the Lam by newly minted MWA Grand Master Barbara Neely, and Pretty as a Picture, the new Elizabeth Little novel, which I have in ARC form. I may take one more book with me–just to be on the safe side, since reading is my favorite way to spend time in airports and on airplanes.

And hopefully, this trip will kick my ass into gear when it comes to reading. My reading has fallen off dramatically since I read for the Edgars in 2018–judging almost always, inevitably, burns me out from reading and it takes me a while to get back up to reading for pleasure again (having said that, though, I read some absolutely amazing books in 2019). I don’t think I’m going to judge again–it’s very time consuming, for one, and you don’t really get the chance to enjoy and savor the books the way I prefer; I intend to go back and reread the five books we selected as finalists and winner at some point, so I can enjoy them as reads rather than reading them critically, with an eye to selecting the best; the five books we selected were all fantastic, so they deserve to be read with an eye for enjoyment. Reading for an award also throws me terribly behind on my pleasure reading–I am now perhaps three or four books behind on my Donna Andrews reading, and this shall not stand! It always sucks to get behind on your pleasure reading because new books are coming out all the time and that makes it harder to get caught up and then you end up with a 2 or 300 hundred book TBR list and–

Yikes.

Not to mention how far behind I’ve allowed myself to get with my writing. But my weekends are free now–football is over and so I have no excuses any more for not getting a lot of writing or editing or reading or all three done every weekend anymore. We’ll probably watch LSU Gymnastics every Friday night–and of course, figure skating season is kicking into gear again too–but for the most part, there’s no reason why I can’t get back to work on the weekend as well as getting my fat old ass back into the gym regularly either; I intend to return to the gym on Monday and start slowly whipping this tired, flabby, sagging body back into some kind of shape again. People have been asking my lately if I’ve lost weight–I didn’t think I had, and I weighed myself yesterday to discover that I have not, in fact, lost even a pound since the last time I weighed myself. I’m not so concerned about losing weight, to be honest, this time around; I’ve come to accept 212 as the weight I am doomed to carry on my frame for the rest of my life, but I can at least trim some of the excess body fat off and get the muscles firmed up again.

I also have a short story I need to get written. I really need to make a list, don’t I?

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines for the rest of the morning before I head back into the office. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader!

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Louisiana Saturday Night

Last night, Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy; the first time since Billy Cannon in 1959 that an LSU player has–and it was just one more peak in what has been one of the most thrilling LSU seasons I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness.

It really has been something for LSU fans.

I started writing this entry the morning after LSU beat Alabama for the first time since 2011, and yet…I resisted posting it at the time. I try not to be superstitious, and succeed for the most part, but when it comes to college football (or the Saints), I give in to superstition all the fucking time, even though I know it’s absurd. For example, every season I pick out two images–one for my Facebook profile picture, the other for my Facebook cover picture. I do not change those images all season unless LSU loses; after a loss I choose two different ones because those two images have clearly run out of luck. Same with what I wear on game days. I always wear LSU sweats when I am at home; I’ve worn my yellow sweatshirt for every game I’ve watched at home this season, and will continue wearing it for the play-offs.

Every bit of juju, you know?

And watching the growing love affair between the people of Louisiana and Joe Burrow has been an absolute joy to watch. Being a football fan in Louisiana is somehow different than it is anywhere else–I don’t really know how to describe it. We cheer the wins and mourn the losses, but we never ever seem to take the losses out on the team. The losses are disappointing yes, but there’s always this sense that the fans and the team are in it together, more so than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. Drew Brees is a god in Louisiana and in New Orleans; now, Joe Burrow is one as well.

Paul said to me recently, “I never really think about you being Southern other than during football season.”

And he’s right–it’s true. One of the few remnants of my childhood upbringing is my deep and abiding love and enjoyment of college football. I’ve managed to shed most of my raising; values I was instilled with as a child that as an adult I’ve come to understand are neither right for me as a person or as a citizen to hold. It’s a struggle I continue to have even now; at least once a day my first thought in response to some situation or something someone says or something I see on-line is reprehensible, undesirable, and horrifying; shaking me to the very core of who I am as a person.

I suppose one can never completely be free of a Southern evangelical childhood. (Which reminds me of my essay “Recovering Christian”–which I really should finish writing.)

But one of the things I still hold onto is my love and enjoyment of college football. I grew up watching the games on ABC every Saturday; rooting for Auburn first and Alabama second. I always liked LSU–purple and gold has always been one of my favorite team color combinations, plus they had a real live tiger mascot–but they were a secondary team for me. I always liked their traditions and their stadium and all of that, but as I said, Auburn and Alabama came first. After I moved to Louisiana I began following LSU more–obviously, it’s much easier to follow the Tigers in Louisiana than anywhere else in the country–and of course, in the wake of Katrina turned my full fan capabilities to LSU, and have never looked back (I still root for Auburn and Alabama, in that order; I root for them except for when they play LSU and when they play each other).

This season has surpassed my wildest dreams for LSU.

I would have never predicted that the state of Louisiana would be having a football-season long (and probably much, much longer) love affair with a kid from Ohio.

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I mean, seriously. I was cautiously optimistic about the season before it began.

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But in all the fantasy narratives of an LSU football season I’ve daydreamed quite happily about, what this 2019 season has become was one that never entered my mind. Not even with my incredibly all-over-the-map creative imagination, would I have dared to dream what this season became.

Legendary.

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LSU 55, Georgia Southern 3

LSU 45, Texas 38

LSU 65, Northwestern State 14

LSU 66, Vanderbilt 38

LSU 42, Utah State 6

LSU 42, Florida 28

LSU 36, Mississippi State 13

LSU 23, Auburn 20

LSU 46, Alabama 41

LSU 58, Mississippi 37

LSU 56, Arkansas 20

LSU 50, Texas A&M 7

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP:

LSU 37, Georgia 10

I also realized over the course of this season why it’s so difficult for me to care about the NFL (other than the Saints): because there are too many LSU players in the NFL playing for non-Saints teams, and I just can’t root against LSU players. Ever. It came to me when I watched the Texas A&M, when they finally took Joe Burrow out of the game to thunderous applause, a standing ovation and the crowd chanting his name, with–I am not ashamed to say it–tears in my eyes: I can never root against Joe Burrow, so whoever he plays for in the NFL I am going to have to pull for–and what happens when he plays against the Saints?

Therein lies the rub with being a football fan.

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This season has been amazing, absolutely amazing, and ever so much fun to watch. If someone had told me last season that LSU would be leading Alabama 33-13 at half-time in Tuscaloosa, or that they would hang fifty on A&M, or about those big final touchdowns against Texas, Florida and Alabama, I would have thought they were dreaming. Sure, I go into every season hoping LSU will play well and have a big year–I always hope for the best–but this season? Never would have dared hope that it would turn out like this. I was excited for Joe Burrow last year when he transferred in, but there was also that element of well, he couldn’t get the starting job at Ohio State–and much as I enjoyed watching him play, Danny Etling was also a transfer quarterback and while he did win some big games (who can ever forget that insane upset of Auburn in Tiger Stadium, coming after the embarrassing loss to Troy, when everyone wrote off not only LSU but predicted Coach O would be fired at the end of the season? I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Danny Etling), it wasn’t like he lit up the record books…and he couldn’t beat Alabama.

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And after last year’s Alabama game, I certainly never dared to hope LSU would beat them this year. But they did, and it was a thriller of a game, an absolute classic. (I may have told Paul to replay the game when I am on my deathbed, so I can die happy.)

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And yes, I am aware that I might take LSU football a little too seriously.

But what a season. I was checking some notes yesterday, and came up with these incredible moments:

*LSU has actually only trailed four opponents during the course of this season: they trailed against Florida 28-21 in the third quarter, only to win 42-28, including a goal line stand at the end of the game when it really didn’t matter if the Gators scored;

*LSU trailed Texas 7-3 in the first quarter, but took the lead back at 10-7; in fact, with 1:30 left in the first half LSU kicked a field goal to go up 13-7…but the halftime score was LSU 20, Texas 7. Texas would close the gap to two points twice in the second half, but the famous 3rd-and-17 touchdown pass slammed the door shut once and for all on the Longhorns;

*Vanderbilt scored first, but by the end of the first quarter LSU was up 28-7.

*LSU trailed Auburn 3-0 early before going up 7-3 and later, 10-3. Auburn scored to tie it at 10-10, but LSU never trailed again;

*With five minutes left in the first half the Tigers kicked a field goal to go up 19-13 on Alabama; the half time score was 33-13. Alabama never lead, the score was never tied, and Alabama was never able to pull close than five points the rest of the game. The third quarter was all Alabama, and they made the score 33-27 with fourteen minutes left in the game–the set-up for another one of Alabama’s come-from-behind wins. Joe then took the Tigers 75 yards, making at least three conversions on third downs to go up 39-27–and when the Tide scored again, Joe took them another 75 yards to put the final nail in the coffin with less than two minutes left in the game;

*Vanderbilt scored first, but by the end of the first quarter LSU was up 28-7.

*Also worthy of mention in the Texas game: Texas had 1st and goal and was stopped four straight times. LSU took over on downs. On the first play Joe threw one of his few interceptions; Texas had first and goal inside the five. LSU’s defense again stopped them four times–so that was eight consecutive stops inside the ten. Amazing.

*In the SEC title game, the score at half-time was 17-3. In a three minute flurry in the second half, LSU went ahead 34-3 before Georgia scored again.Screen Shot 2019-12-15 at 8.26.42 AM

It’s really been a magical, wondrous season to watch and enjoy; there have been so many times where all I’ve been able to say it “OH MY GOD” as I watched–the most recent, of course, that insane play where Joe avoided three tacklers and launched a pass that went for 71 yards….while running to the sideline.

There have been so many great moments this season.

And I haven’t even talked about the great story behind this season either: the coach no one wanted; the third string quarterback who left his original school so he could get a chance to play; the running back everyone thought was too short to play college ball; the linemen no one wanted; the receiver who was too skinny–they all came together in Tiger Stadium to create one of the greatest teams in the already storied history of LSU football.

I am so thrilled I got to see them play in person twice–the Georgia Southern game, and one of the greatest experiences of my life–the Florida game.

Thank you, Joe, Coach O, and everyone else on the team from the bottom of my heart.

GEAUX TIGERS!