A Suspense Novel About the Queerness of American Football
John Fram, author of "The Bright Lands," on sports, Texas, queer men and their secrets
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Displayed upright on my desk, as if it were a work of art or a rare book, is a cheap one-subject notebook with men playing football on its cover. I somehow ended up with it in a back-to-school haul in 1995. In third grade, I didn’t know the rules of football—and I still don’t—but I found the cover artwork irresistible: the players in red-and-white and gray-and-blue team colors popping off the green fieldscape, the classic, reassuring, masculine Americana sensibility. A little closeted gay boy, I was both petrified of all football fields yet taken in by this vision of boyishness as a style. The idea of football somehow enchanted me and horrified me. For 25 years, I’ve held onto that notebook, and now I consider it a haunted, prized possession, a weird, alluring ghost.
This is how I consumed The Bright Lands, John Fram’s savage, gorgeous debut novel about football, Texas, queer men, and their secrets: in three wild sittings, alternately gazing up at the specter of football in my own bedroom. Fram presents football as a queer phantom, a menacing force that pervades—invades—the outward heteronormative peace of Bentley, Texas. What initially looks like the picture of healthy teenage masculinity becomes a violence so dark it threatens to eliminate anyone who steps in its way. The Bright Lands is a surprising, disturbing, illuminating picture of American manhood.
Recently, I had the pleasure of talking to Fram about the queerness of football, Southern white hypocrisy, and the sometimes bleak, sometimes galvanizing cynicism of Gen Z.
Logan Scherer: On its surface, The Bright Lands is a thriller with the disappearance of a small-town Texas high school’s star quarterback launching the novel’s increasingly unsettling events. As the off-kilter, subtly disturbing threats of this place seep into the reader’s consciousness, it becomes clear that there aren’t just sinister things going on in this town, that the novel itself is uncovering deeper truths about queer sexuality and repression. What made you turn to Texas football as a site for thinking about repressed sexuality?
John Fram: God, I wish I had a smarter answer to this, but ever since I was young I was fascinated by football because it was so damn erotic. It’s a tug of war between men in the best shape of their life, all of it punctuated by bodily collision and fueled by an intense, private energy on the field that us spectators see only flashes of in our seats. Even as a kid, it baffled me how a sport this homoerotic would be the centerpiece of all culture in Texas, a state that’s so afraid of queerness just crossing your legs the wrong way can get you crippled.
I knew for a long time that I wanted to write a suspense novel with a queer hero at its heart, if only to fill a hole on my bookshelf where no such novel existed. However, in the course of writing it, I discovered that Joel, my protagonist, found the sport equally confounding. By allowing his point of view to inform the book—which is to say, by allowing a queer male gaze to notice the things most people choose to ignore about the sport—a wealth of material just started to bubble up.
LS: Which texts influenced you most—in both your setting up of this football backdrop and then total reimagining of it?
JF: If we’re talking about specific texts, H. G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights occupies a curious place in the imagination. While it’s primarily remembered as the basis for a (very good) soap opera, the book is actually a very angry autopsy of a toxic system and its traumatic effect on young men. The feature film adaptation comes closer to capturing some of this ambivalence, but nothing can quite prepare you for the rage that steams off the page. Bissinger clearly loves the boys at the center of his story, and the way the institution of the Permian Panthers sets them up and knocks them down is one of the great tragic arcs in American sports writing.
So that was probably the most important text, in the sense that it validated my suspicions about the sadness and waste that seemed to haunt the teams where I grew up. Past that, I pulled on all sorts of Americana, both recent and older, always trying to capture that feeling of being trapped in a tiny town with too much sky: The Killers’ Hot Fuss, everything from Explosions in the Sky, and long hours with the great country stars of the last generation. Name me a better embodiment of Southern sadness and white hypocrisy than Kenny Rogers. I’ll wait.
LS: Okay, you’ll definitely be waiting forever! I want to talk about the people of Bentley, Texas. Your novel has many memorable, nuanced characters who satisfy and totally subvert the expectations readers might have of the football-obsessed, demon-ridden townies, but the central character is Joel, a gay man who grew up in Bentley, moved away to Manhattan after being shamed for his sexuality, and now must come back to rescue his brother. How did you create Joel?
JF: As I mentioned earlier, I’d always wanted to write a queer hero, and I realized that my memories of growing up in Texas could serve me plenty of material. However, I didn’t want to write an auto-novel, mostly because I’m not as smart as Rachel Cusk or Garth Greenwell and not as vapid as, well—you know who I’m talking about.
So in terms of pure craft, I started giving Joel character traits that were the opposite of me. When I was writing this book, I was dangerously poor, so I made Joel comically rich. Because I never really had the money to cultivate a body, I gave Joel an Equinox membership and the chest to prove it. I found that by giving Joel just a touch of the Instagram life, I could get to something honest in him that I’d finally figured out about the glossy men who inspired him: he’s doing his best, just like the rest of us. By sinking him into an increasingly dangerous situation, he could turn all of the ambition and intellect necessary to cultivate a boutique New York existence onto a tiny town with lots of secrets.
Of course, being who he is, he’s naive enough to think he can handle what he’ll find.
LS: Your book at times feels hardboiled, revealing (no spoilers) a violent undercurrent of this strange small town, but amidst that violence is a tenderness that often moved me. There are so many heart-wrenching revelations around the frustration and tragic impossibility of queer male relationships in a rural place like Bentley. “Shame and love, while one might breed the other, could never truly be felt at the same time,” you write. For all its violence, to what extent, if any, is your book actually about love—failed, doomed, unreciprocated (or unreciprocable) love? Is there any possibility for happy queer love in Bentley, Texas?
JF: To give you a short answer: no, I don’t think it is. Bentley is (perhaps literally) rotten to the core, but it’s no different than plenty of places in this country. Queer love terrifies much of this country because it’s demonstrable proof that the old modes of living—wives under their husbands, childrens subsumed by their parents, whites over everyone else—can be broken and done without.
Of course, certain people in Bentley, like everywhere else, recognize the way their neighbors would be mortified if they discovered who they are, so they hide their need. We die without contact, without honest connection; even a repressed queer person will search for an accidental brush with a nice arm, a drunken lull where the borders get blurry. So often, when we’re in the closet, this hunger for tenderness can quickly spill over into predation.
LS: So is escape the only option for people like Joel?
JF: I think it is, yes. While there’s a room for a certain type of homosexual man in rural America, he’s often expected to be a cartoon, to play up his queerness until he is so camp he is so alien, so clearly differentiated from the society at large, that he poses no tangible threat to that society. Not that queens shouldn’t live their fantasy! But someone like Joel—someone who slips along the spectrum of sexuality—is too dangerous to ever find acceptance there.
It’s funny, in researching this book, I followed the Instagram accounts and YouTube vlogs of a good two dozen football playing kids in Texas and discovered that Gen Z is both much savvier than us Millennials ever were and also far more cynical. Many of them are already worrying about money, hustling for opportunities, making plans and talking like characters in a rap (though it was a little disconcerting to speak with these same kids and realize that they were far from woke.) I think there’s something tragic about this: we Millenials at least had the pleasure of hoping for something great—the election of a black man, the curbing of the banks, a re-imagining of our role in the world—only to watch all of that be crushed.
These Gen Z kids, they know better. After growing up in the wake of the financial collapse, they know they’re on their own. It was fun to see the way that infusion of cynicism darkened my characters and gave everything in the text a nice noir edge, but man—I wish they weren’t so fucked.
LS: Where—if anywhere—can this cynicism take us?
JF: I mean, zooming out a little, I think we need to be honest about the fact that our current political crisis is deeper than some spat about expanding Obamacare or asking citizens not to own military-grade weaponry. Large swathes of this country are still deeply in shock over a simple fact: a black man—the single most disposable type commodity in American history—was raised up over their white heads to become President of a country founded on slavery. I was in Waco, Texas on the day President Obama was elected and I remember the way memes of old lynchings were being passed around as palliatives.
The immense upheaval since President Obama’s election is not some temporary indigestion. His election showed America that the old modes aren’t just fragile, but actively crumbling. This is terrifying to whites—especially poor whites—because they understand, perhaps better than anyone, that capitalism is a zero-sum game. This thought is anathema to liberals, but you simply can’t advance the economic and cultural interests of one group without circumscribing those of others. The old system was the only way these poor whites felt they could maintain a toe-hold in our society, and with that system crumbling, well: it’s a disaster for them, and they’re making sure it’s a disaster for us.