Monday, April 11, 2022

Compelling, Revealing, Fierce, and Agonizing: Eli Cranor's Debut Crime Novel, DON'T KNOW TOUGH

Dennis Lehane did it for Boston: gave us the gritty lives of people growing up impoverished not just in terms of money and power, but self-esteem and affection. And then Lehane turned each narrative on its ear to show us the love and courage that burn underneath—not like an unquenched flame, but like vinegar or whiskey poured into an open wound.

In his first published novel, Eli Cranor does the same for Arkansas—not in a city but in the dangerous fields of high school football. And the even more perilous crowds of spectators, whose rough cheers and rougher sneers suggest they're ardent bystanders ... but who have built and incited the violence playing out in front of them.

Desperate but still somehow idealistic, incoming coach Trent Powers intends to bring his unruly football players into enough collaboration to win games. He must, to regain his wife's respect and some measure of the control that his Caifornia father-in-law has stripped from him. Still convinced he can be a savior, he's willing to do anything to rescue a possible team star and capture the region's prized title.

But he hasn't ever met someone like Billy Lowe before—or principal Don Bradshaw, already immersed in the team's harsh masculinity and its local roots of abuse. Bluntly, Bradshaw tells Trent Powers, "What's up is a sh**-storm, and you're sitting in the eye of it."

Extraordinary football player that he is, Billy's at the core of the team's dark nightmarish actions. The principal claims it's because of the Blackness in Billy and his older (and also game-fierce) brothers—an unproven but widely asserted claim, and a pillar of the book's Southern Gothic framework. "You got to know how to handle a Lowe."

But Cranor strips his characters under blazing spotlights, letting them narrate in turn, and readers soon know more about Billy's desperation than anyone at the school guesses. Here's a sample of Billy's home life:

I heard Him flick his lighter.

Whole body go tight at the smell, feeling that burn all over again. ... The other night when he stuck me. I's sitting on the ground against the sofa, holding Little Brother, watching Wheel of Fortune, and then he stuck that red [cigarette] tip in my neck, like it was some kind of joke. I just squeezed Little Brother tight. Just took it. Been taking his sh** for years. Back when I's a kid and He's still bigger than me—I had to take it. Didn't have no choice. Don't know if that's what I's thinking when He stuck me, but I knew I couldn't let Him see me hurt. Little Brother started screaming, loud and crazy, like he could feel the fire in my blood.

That time, Billy's Little Brother got a vicious and humiliating punishment for witnessing Billy's pain. This time, Billy's past his own limit and lets loose one massive punch that knocks over his mother's "boyfriend." The man's still alive (though he doesn't deserve to be) when Billy takes off to wash himself clean at the river—and get drunk.

When "He" dies, Billy's the immediate and only suspect. Coach Powers struggles naively to rescue Billy from this mess, the only way this outsider coach can press the team to the title. Meanwhile, two women with very different motives get involved, and despite the pulse-pounding action and violence of the story, the truth of the death emerges slowly and indirectly. And maybe not in time for anyone, least of all the coach, to be saved.

Though DON'T KNOW TOUGH is packed with brutality and its consequences, Cranor metes it out in precise doses that punch to the gut yet keep the pages turning. Grim, bleak, even the hope that does arrive—and yes, it does—comes tainted with high costs and dark potential. So take a good soul-clearing walk after reading this. But it is, in its own powerful way, well worth the pain.

From Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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