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When Peter Lovesey was just starting out, he happened on a notice for a first novel contest. He entered and, unsurprisingly, won with WOBBLE TO DEATH. In order to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his achievement, he and Soho Crime established another first novel contest and DON'T KNOW TOUGH by Eli Cranor came out on top.
It is a novel very different from WOBBLE TO DEATH. Set in the author's native Arkansas, in Denton, a nondescript small town with very little to recommend it, the high school football team is about the only place its teen-aged males can hope to achieve status. The team hasn't been particularly successful lately and in order to improve its chances, a new coach, Trent Powers, has been imported from California. He would appear to be a reasonably good fit - born in the South but raised in California, he is a born-again Christian who was saved, in several senses of the word, by his coach. And it is salvation, of one sort or another, that Trent hopes to extend to his players.
The chief player in need of salvation is Billy Lowe, whose elder brother was also a star on the football team, an accomplishment that has not led to his success in adult life. Billy lives with his mother, his Little Brother, and with an abusive man that Billy refers to only as Him in a trailer park near a chicken processing plant. Him drinks NyQuil in order to save his whisky, and puts his cigarettes out on Billy's neck when he thinks he deserves punishment. But he is happy to take ownership of Billy's football eminence.
At practice one day before an important game, Billy's neck is hurting and he takes his frustration out on a sophomore player who happens to be the son of a rich townsman "who can pay for everything," savagely tackling him and leaving him with a concussion. Benched, kept from enjoying his final moments of team glory, and furious at the sophomore for making fun of his family in the stands, Billy discharges his rage once again on the rich kid. From this point, everything in his life gets much worse.
The story unfolds in alternating chapters that focus on Billy, the coach, Lorna, the coach's daughter, and Billy's family. Billy speaks for himself, in a characteristic dialect he picked up in his earlier years when the family lived elsewhere in Arkansas in an area that was largely Black. It is generally thought that Billy's father was Black, a fact that is tempers the degree of football fame that comes Billy's way.
After a confrontation with Him, Billy hits Him and runs off. When he returns the next morning he finds His dead body in the trailer:
"I try to stand but cain't.. I shake Him again. He don't move. Don't grunt. Nothing. The syrup on the floor got me stuck. But I'm Billy Lowe. I'm strong and can run the hell out a football. That's what it feel like. Feel like I'm running through that little crease, that alley– Blood Alley–as I pull away from the mess a Him on the floor."
He will lie there undiscovered for almost a week, the odour of his decomposing body disguised by the smell of the chicken processing plants nearby.
The other narratives are told in the conventional third person, with the action described from without. But these chapters are shot through with haunting echoes of Southern US gothic prose that are extraordinarily effective.
Nor are the prose antecedents necessarily southern. Hemingway broods over the book, especially the classic bane of high school English classes, The Old Man and the Sea with its lesson in the futility of human striving. Lorna, who shares her father's determination to offer salvation to the desperate Billy, though a cultural not religious salvation, uses it as her text. There is more than a whiff of Daisy Buchanan about Lorna, as well as several of the other Fitzgerald leads, in her teen-aged desperation.
I will be the first to admit I know next to nothing about American football. I am happier with Ted Lasso than Friday Night Lights. But DON'T KNOW TOUGH is a remarkably accomplished debut and its author has thought deeply about the role that football plays in the formation both of American male identity and civic pride. Eli Cranor is a former football player himself so he knows whereof he speaks and what he has to say is both informative and moving.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2022
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Contact: Yvonne Klein (email@example.com)
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