Eli Cranor shopped his manuscript for his Southern-noir debut Don’t Know Tough around alot until it was finally picked up and published. Maybe its time has come with the success of other writers like SA Cosby (Blacktop Wasteland), Michael Farris Smith (The Fighter) and even Delia Owens (Where the Crawdads Sing) demonstrating a healthy market for this style of narrative and setting. Cross this appeal with the equal success of shows like Friday Night Lights and the American obsession with football and you get Don’t Know Tough. Cranor’s debut is, as its name suggests, as tough and unrelenting as the small town of Denton, Arkansas and the oversized high-schoolers who play football there for the Denton Pirates.
Don’t Know Tough opens with and revolves around Billy Lowe, an uncontrollable yet clearly talented high school footballer. Lowe has the deck stacked against him – living in a trailer with his mother, baby brother and his mother’s abusive and violent boyfriend Travis and an uncontrollable temper that gets him benched when he violently assaults one of his team mates. But Lowe is also the only reason that the high school football team is in the state playoffs which is an issue for new imported coach Trent Powers. Trent is fresh from California and is seen as an outsider but he also has a history that allows him to somewhat identify with Billy and the things he is going through. When Travis is found dead and Trent invites Billy to stay in his home, piquing the interests of his sixteen year old daughter Lorna, things start to get decidedly out of control.
Cranor has a number of points of view into the action in Don’t Know Tough. This not only includes Billy and Trent but Lorna and Trent’s tough as nails wife Marla, Billy’s mother Tina, the long time assistant coach Bull and plenty of others. This gives readers a sense of all of the main players in the drama and where they come from as events start to slide out of any of their control. And it is these characters staying true to themselves that drives that action in ways that readers should but may not expect.
While there is plenty of Christianity referenced in Don’t Know Tough, the real religion here is football. Cranor focusses on the way the whole town orients itself around the Friday night game. And makes clear the importance of the game to Billy and to Trent:
If the Powers family ever want out of Arkansas, the Pirates have to win, and the only way they’re going to do that is with Billy Lowe.
But Trent sees the game as even more than this – as a way of saving Billy himself and of potentially giving him a pathway out of Denton and his destructive family life.
This is a hardscrabble story of people striving set in a marginal town in the middle of America. As with many Southern-gothic narratives there are no easy solutions and characters find that even trying to do the right thing often becomes as dangerous as doing the wrong thing. Cranor does a great job of setting up his characters and then slowly ramping up the pressure, building to a unpredictable conclusion that is nevertheless predictably tragic.