Silver Springs

My back still hurts today, and while at the moment it’s better than it was yesterday…it’s always best when I get up in the morning, so I don’t know how the rest of today is going to go. I have to go pick-up the groceries I ordered yesterday–which has me nervous–and I’ve even decided to wait on ordering Costco until tomorrow or Work-At-Home Monday. I was hoping it would be okay enough for me to be able to at least spend a few hours at the computer this morning writing; but taking yesterday off to just lie flat while alternating heat and cold (thank you, Eric Andrews-Katz, for reminding me to do that yesterday and not just use heating pads and generic Ben-Gay; I will be doing that today as well)was enormously helpful in the healing process. I was also taking pain killers yesterday to make myself more comfortable, and by the end of the day yesterday I felt–I really don’t know how to describe it, but I felt like all of my muscles and joints needed to be stretched, so I started doing that in my chair and it felt ever so much better before I went to bed last night. I didn’t read much of anything because the pain killers were fogging up my brain something terrible; but I did get my three-ring binders containing everything I am currently working on out to reread where I am at on everything. Scotty’s Chapter Three needs a revision (or a re-ordering of its scenes) to match up to the changes I made on the first two chapters; I know where this story is going now and I really like the decisions I made before Bouchercon to turn this into something worthy of a Scotty novel. Today, other than the making of the grocieries, is going to be mostly me doing the same as I did yesterday–lying prone in my easy chair unfolded out, alternating between heat and cold, while hopefully reading the new Donna Andrews while managing my pain with Aleve while college football plays on the screen. LSU plays Mississippi State tonight in Death Valley, so we’ll get some sort of idea of how well the Tigers have regrouped since that opening loss (last week’s blowout of Southern doesn’t really count–no offense, Southern). And tomorrow is Saints-Buccaneers, so I can swear at Tom Brady some more, which is always an enjoyable experience.

So, looks like today–other than the groceries, getting the mail, and getting as–is going to be another enforced day off. I am afraid of doing my usual “oh it feels better so I can do more things only to make it worse and last longer” thing, so much as I am loathe to fall even further behind on everything, I really don’t have much choice. Your back is not something you want to fuck with a whole lot, and the last thing I need at my age–at any age–is to continue having chronic issues with my back. I hurt it at the gym years and years ago, always assumed it was safe to go back before it actually was, and then consistently made things worse. This was when my serious 3 to 4 times per week workout routine was finally and completely disrupted, and I’ve never really been able to consistently attend the gym to workout ever since.

The Lost Apartment is also a disaster area, but…don’t push it, Gregalicious. Just relax and allow yourself the time to let whatever-the-fuck-it-is you did to your back to heal. You’ve got college football games to watch and a Donna Andrews novel to read, and in a worst case scenario you can lay back in your easy chair and use the laptop to do things like write or something…until of course Scooter wants to go to sleep in my lap.

I also overslept a bit this morning, but the benefit of that is I no longer feel exhausted, which is yet another step on the needed path for me to feel like Gregalicious again. I got the Bouchercon email this morning in which sixteen (!!!!) attendees have tested positive this far, but so far I’ve dodged that bullet again. I have wondered, with the exhaustion, but that second line keeps on not showing up on my tests so as far as I can tell, everything else is fine. (Excuse me for a moment while I stick a swab up my nose; seriously, at this point I’d rather stick my finger and use blood to run the test. Why can’t this be an oral swab like the HIV tests used to be like?)

We did get caught up on Bad Sisters last night, and then moved on to the series premiere of The Serpent Queen, with Samantha Morton as Catherine de Medici. The show is actually–at least so far–seems historically accurate (other than she married Henri duc d’Orleans in 1533 rather than 1536; that year is fixed in my head because that is also the year Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn and had her crowned), and of course, Catherine is one of my favorite historical characters of all time. She is often depicted in history as evil and cruel and malignant–but imagine loving your husband so much and enduring the humiliation of his disinterest in you while being utterly devoted to a woman twenty years older…and this goes on for 26 years before he dies. Wouldn’t you be a little warped? Ignored, dismissed, laughed at…and then with her husband’s death she becomes one of the most powerful women in Europe, trying to preserve the crown and an intact France for her sons during a time of almost constant religious and political strife. She fascinates me, much as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Anne Boleyn, Blanche of Castile, and several other great queens of history do…which again leads me to my idea of writing a history of the sixteenth century in Europe through the tales of the great and powerful women of that century, A Monstrous Regiment of Women. There was also a time when I wanted to write historical novels of political intrigue, and what better place to set such a series than during the second half of the sixteenth century in France, which was a time more akin to Game of Thrones than most periods (the Wars of the Roses is another; the dying out of the Capetian dynasty in France in the early fourteenth is another).

Yes, a series centered around one of Catherine’s Flying Squadron (beautiful women trained in the arts of seduction and eroticism, who took lovers strategically so they could spy on them for the Crown) during the period of 1570-1589 would be a lot of fun to write, and the research! What fun would all that reading be? Perhaps someday when I have more time and energy…ha ha ha, I somehow managed to type that with a straight face.

I’ve also always wanted to write a sixteenth century murder mystery where Robert Cecil hires someone to investigate the death of Amy Robsart in 1560–which jeopardized Queen Elizabeth’s throne within the first two years of her reign.

And that’s not even taking into consideration my retelling of The Three Musketeers from Milady de Winter’s point of view.

Yeah, I will probably never write anything more historical any further back than my lifetime.

And on that note, I am retiring to my easy chair with Donna Andrews and some ice packs. Have a happy Saturday, Constant Reader.

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.