a review of Don’t Know Tough by Eli Cranor
review by Well Read Beard
“It should be illegal… the power the game has over men, a blinding, burning feeling – a drug – that’s what football is. And for the winners there are no warning labels, no side effects or hangovers, nothing except the pure, undiluted knowledge that you are superior to your fellow man.”
– Eli Cranor, Don’t Know Tough
“Football combines two of the worst things in American life. It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.”
– George Will
Eli Cranor’s novel, Don’t Know Tough, is about football and everything else. And in honesty, I have taken a couple of cracks at this review, writing entirely too much about football and too little about this wonderful book. I couldn’t stop and I am sure this version will probably also be filled with little bits about the greatest game ever invented, but for the sake of my editor I will try to limit that stuff as much as possible. All that said, there’s a real question to be answered here. Will you like this book if you don’t know or like football? Well, you know life is a lot like third down and long and … Yes, the answer is yes and that lies mostly in the everything else. This book has a desolate Arkansas trailer park landscape, real characters, real relationships, suspense, dread, hard luck, blood and sweat and gunshot wounds, and murder. Beneath all that it’s about Billy Lowe, and he has nothing but football. Look, football practice in the Arkansas heat isn’t always fun. Some kids might go home to a nice family meal in a beautiful home and call practice the worst part of their day. That’s where Billy was different. The worst part of their day was the best part of his. It was the only part that made sense. His home life was full of running and violence. Football for Billy consisted of the same elements but he was in control of it. He was in control of the running and violence. More than just control, he was revered for it.
Coach Trent Powers is the new coach of the Denton Pirates. He has relocated his entire family from California to Arkansas. He didn’t have a lot of choice, there weren’t any teams in California that were knocking down his door with job offers. This new team has one chance at success, one chance for Trent to redeem his coaching reputation. That one chance is an extremely volatile but talented hard luck kid named Billy Lowe. Trouble seems to be about the only thing that can tackle Billy. Left with few options to actually keep Billy on the field, the coach takes him under his own roof. When Billy’s abusive step-father is found dead, Trent’s coaching success and Billy’s chances at getting out of this dead-end shit town start to fall apart and we are lead through a dark and twisted chain of violent events. We learn that Trent’s background somewhat equips him for dealing with troubled boys like Billy, but we also know that boys like Billy don’t exist in California. “Arkansas hills produce crazy like the Earth’s mantle produces diamonds: enough heat and pressure to make all things hard.”
This book is about violence. Football requires bodies, eleven on offense and eleven on defense. When compared to a sport like basketball with five kids on the court, it simply requires more participants. Only a few of those kids will actually ever touch the ball or get a chance to score. So why do they play? The teamwork, the camaraderie, the being a part of something bigger than themselves? Maybe. Sure, some of that. But really, it’s the violence. The legalized violence, the freedom to do things on the field that would get you expelled if you did them in the hallway or the classroom. I wish I could tell you that throwing everything you have against a competitor and feeling them crumple against the weight of your blow doesn’t feel invigorating, but I would be lying. I also know that I am letting the cover slip off of my toxic masculinity and for that I can only ask forgiveness. But it’s true, it’s the beautiful synchronized violence. “This time I spear him with the top of my helmet. Dive and go head-to-head. There’s a cracking sound – not thunder, not lightning, and damn sure not sheet metal – this is the sound of my heart breaking, the sound of violence pouring out.”
This book is about salvation. It’s about the hint of a chance of survival for Billy. The only chance is that field, that ball, that violence. That possibility is real but it’s slim and it’s worth fighting for. Football paid for my college education. At seventeen I made a decision that basically defines everything that I am today. My career, where I live, my family can all be directly linked to those decisions that I made as a kid. It didn’t save me from jail or a life of crime, but it damned sure saved me from following my father into the coal mines. It’s real. Billy’s chance at survival is real.
Cranor chooses to write Billy’s dialect into his prose. It felt a bit odd at first and took me a bit of getting used to. The other characters in the book do not speak the way Billy does, and I could see that being a problem for some readers. Initially, I thought that there were just some mistakes in the text considering this was an uncorrected proof, but then I found the rhythm and realized that the dialect differences just helped to solidify Billy. Billy was different. Denton was round hole and Billy was a square peg, he just didn’t fit. That being said… Billy knows one thing, how to make it work by force. Lower your head and run through the hole young man.
Beneath the violence there are a lot of pretty parts in this book, a lot of beautiful little relationships along the way. Billy’s relationship with his mother and the other secondary characters around the trailer park feel like they are struggling to shine beneath the dirt, grime, soiled diapers, and junked out cars that blot the scenery. There’s a lot of “don’t know better” and “just trying to get by” going on there that is ever-present in small town America. Coach Trent’s daughter Lorna is an enlightened free spirit of a character that helps Billy out with his classroom work. They read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea together. First, I love bits about books in books. This one really hit the mark with me though, and I will save the story about the importance this book played in my life for another time. But… the idea behind it, the idea of chasing and achieving something only to have it ripped apart before you could bring it home. Yeah. Bravo.
I know Billy. I am sure that I played with a lot of kids just like him, but I know for certain that I have coached kids just like him. It’s a tough place. I already mentioned more kids on the field. That means generally you have every walk of life, every socio-economic background represented on your team. There are some kids that you know had their gear laid out for them by their mamas, they were fed, and they were given a nice comfortable ride to practice. Then there are the Billys. You don’t know if he has a ride. You don’t know if he is stuck watching younger siblings. You don’t know the last time he’s had something to eat or if he actually has a bed to sleep in. You have no idea what this kid has had to walk through just to make it to this field so that he can sweat and bleed. And you damn sure Don’t Know Tough.