Friday, August 5, 2022


DON'T KNOW TOUGH by Eli Cranor (Soho Press, 2022)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Friday Night Lights meets Southern Gothic, this thrilling debut is for readers of Megan Abbott and Wiley Cash. In Denton, Arkansas, the fate of the high school football team rests on the shoulders of Billy Lowe, a volatile but talented running back. Billy comes from an extremely troubled home: a trailer park where he is terrorized by his unstable mother’s abusive boyfriend. Billy takes out his anger on the field, but when his savagery crosses a line, he faces suspension.

Without Billy Lowe, the Denton Pirates can kiss their playoff bid goodbye. But the head coach, Trent Powers, who just moved from California with his wife and two children for this job, has more than just his paycheck riding on Billy’s bad behavior. As a born-again Christian, Trent feels a divine calling to save Billy—save him from his circumstances, and save his soul.

Then Billy’s abuser is found murdered in the Lowe family trailer, and all evidence points toward Billy. Now nothing can stop an explosive chain of violence that could tear the whole town apart on the eve of the playoffs.

It’s the voice that grabs you first in Arkansas teacher and former quarterback Eli Cranor’s astonishing debut novel. Billy Lowe, a tough teen who shoulders the dreams of many in the backwater of Denton, Arkansas. A high school running back who lives in a trailer park and gets his neck used as an ashtray by the abusive boyfriend of his mother, who unleashes his rage on the football field. And sometimes off.

California high school coach Trent Powers didn’t envisage Denton in his plans, a town of poultry farms and trailer parks. But after he was banished by his father-in-law, it may be his last-chance saloon. His wife Marley wants a state title even more than he does: it’s their ticket to escape, to reclaim some of what they should have had. Billy’s a simmering volcano, but they need him. He crosses the line, but Trent takes him into his home, seeking redemption as well as wins. Then the rotting body of Billy’s abuser is found. Everyone has secrets, and is scrabbling to survive. Not all will.

Cranor delivers a powerful tale full of darkness, desperation, and humanity. 

DON'T KNOW TOUGH is an exceptional slice of Southern Gothic that heralds the arrival of a terrific new voice in rural noir. Cranor takes readers into the grimy underbelly of high school sports, but this tale is about far more than football. A clash of values and principles, between characters and within them. Evocative prose throughout, and an extraordinary first-person voice in Billy’s passages. 

A triumph of a debut.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer who's interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of Australian, Scottish, and NZ crime writing awards, and is co-founder of Rotorua Noir. He's the author of the HRF Keating award-shortlisted non-fiction book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, and the series editor of acclaimed anthology DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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