Don’t Know Tough by Eli Cranor

Don’t Know Tough
By Eli Cranor
Soho Press
Hardback, 324 pages

Novel drafts young lives lived on football fields at third and long

By Matthew Guinn
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

            Southern literature has never lacked for subject matter, but it has long been restricted in its perspectives. For too long, the region’s fiction has been limited to the call-and-response of Cicero recited from the veranda, spirituals sung from the fields.

            That has changed in earnest in the 21st century. Black writers like Jesmyn Ward and Natasha Tretheway have shown us what life for Black southerners looked like after Richard Wright and Alice Walker. White southern perspectives came out of the woodwork in Larry Brown, Dorothy Allison, Steve Yarbrough.

            Not only what to make of southern history, but also what it means to be ‘southern,’ became a question fraught with issues more nuanced than the old Black-White divide. The literature became diverse, then polyphonic.

            Into this mix steps Eli Cranor with his debut novel “Don’t Know Tough”, which seems to speak in all these languages and indeed adds a dialect of its own.

            The novel is set in Denton, Arkansas, and follows Billy Lowe, a football star from the wrong side of the tracks who seems to derive his gridiron skills in equal parts from practiced skill and pent-up anger.

            Billy’s home life is miserable. His mother Tina, beginning to realize that “time has taken from her all power she once held over men,” keeps trading down in a series of abusive father figures to her sons. Tina has given up on Billy’s older brother (a washed-up high school star himself), still roots for Billy, but seems to be holding out the most hope for their baby brother—as if the third time might be the charm. Billy is counting the days to his graduation, when he can quit the squalid trailer and the train of men Tina seeks to reflect back to her what she has lost.

            Billy’s coach comes from a slightly more privileged background but is also trading down—in his case, from a plum coaching job he lost in Anaheim to his current post at Denton High. Coach Trent Powers seems to believe that some of the redemption he sees glimmering in his star running back might also accrue to himself. That hope, however, is literally slammed in the novel’s opening pages, when Billy’s simmering rage erupts on the practice field and casts his winning season—and that of the Denton Pirates—into doubt. Billy’s growing romance with Coach Powers’ daughter complicates the precarious situation further.

            For all the characters in “Don’t Know Tough”, life is in its fourth quarter with the clock running down.

            Some of this milieu is familiar. The small-town, high-stakes football setting calls to mind Steve Yarbrough’s work, especially “The End of California”. Cranor’s women and their hard choices (to the extent that they are choices) recall Dorothy Allison’s “Bastard out of Carolina”. The drug- and violence-steeped border South of Cranor’s Arkansas resembles the rough souths of Daniel Woodrell, David Joy, or Michael Farris Smith, with the Arkansas River running through it “the color of chocolate milk and smell[ing] like skunked beer.”

            But this is its own red-dirt terroir and Billy himself is something new, a kind of Huck Finn for the contemporary, postindustrial South. As narrator, Billy speaks in a voice all his own, a patois mixed from inner-city attitude and rural locution, both Black and White. Billy is of many cultures within the South but is not truly claimed by any of them.

            Billy makes a convincing case that the rest of the world “don’t know tough” as he does. Life as he has known it is a contact sport without pads; what is a game for his opponents is for Billy existence itself—a metaphor only in the sense that football has rules, as life does not. “Everything I ever learned been taught through pain,” he says without a trace of self-pity. “My whole life just been hit after hit.” In Cranor’s capable hands, the claim is neither exaggeration nor excuse, but a statement of fact. One comes to understand Billy’s observation that “I hit things cause that’s the only thing ever worked in my life.”

            It is not a statement of machismo, the braggadocio of a thug. Cranor’s treatment is too realistic for that, his character too fully-dimensional to be simply a stereotype. Rather, Billy has been shaped by what Wright called in “Black Boy” “the pressure of southern living.” As such he resembles Jesmyn Ward’s characters in “Salvage the Bones”or“The Men We Reaped”, trying hard to do better than what birth and environment seem to have dictated for them. Here we have a White boy facing similarly daunting odds, with his own capabilities as his apparent sole resource.

            So what is Billy Lowe’s hope for escape from a naturalistic tragedy? Perhaps it is love— the promise of Coach Powers’ captivating daughter and a future far beyond the limitations of Denton, Arkansas. Or perhaps not. “Love?” Billy asks himself at one point. “What the hell is love? This is football.” But here, as so many other places in his life, Billy’s gut tells him things his head is not ready to process. “Don’t Know Tough” is love, ambition, survival, football—and much more.

Novelist Matthew Guinn is professor of creative writing at Belhaven University.


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