Don't Know Tough by Eli Cranor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When a whole bunch of the writers you’re a fan of are recommending a book, you should probably read it. I did, and they did not steer me wrong. This is a great one.
Billy Lowe is the star player of his high school football team in Denton, Arkansas, but he’s a dirt-poor kid with an abusive step-father, little understanding of social norms, and severe anger issues. When Billy assaults a teammate just as his team is getting ready for the state play-offs, it puts Coach Trent Powers in a tough spot. Trent is a born-again Christian who screwed up his last coaching job in California so he’s brought his family to small town Arkansas to try and quickly win and get a better job elsewhere. If Billy is suspended or arrested, Trent has no chance of winning a state championship so even as pressure mounts, he continues to insist that Billy can be transformed through reason and patience. Things get even more complicated when Billy’s step-father is found dead in their trailer.
That’s an excellent set-up for a crime novel, but what boosts this one up to the next level is the outstanding character work that’s done. We get shifting perspectives, mainly from Billy and his coach, and the differences are stark. In some ways, Billy is little more than an abused animal who has gone feral. His entire family is viewed as trash by the town, and nobody thinks he has any value outside of a football field. For Billy, the only thing he puts any value on is toughness, and he has nothing but constant for those around him he sees as soft. He has his own reasons for lashing out, but to anyone not any Billy’s head, he just seems violent and dangerous.
Powers isn’t exactly the win-at-any-cost type of coach you’d expect either. While he’s in a bad situation he also has his own tough background as a foster kid, and he tries to turn Billy into a decent young man by using the same sort of methods that worked on him. Yes, he’s rationalizing a lot to justify keeping Billy on the team, but he also seems to be buying what he’s selling even as everyone around him thinks he’s crazy to try because you can’t appeal to a rabid dog with reason.
There are several other complex and well-developed characters, and the whole atmosphere of a small town that was happy to use Billy to win football games even as they all treated him like shit on their shoes is incredibly authentic.
Overall, it’s a riveting character-based story that always zigs when you think it’s going to zag.
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