Hanover Square Press
Hardcover (also available as an e-book, an audiobook, and on audio CD), 978-1-3358-3662-5, 480 pgs., $27.99
July 7, 2020
Joel is standing in the aftermath of a party in his Manhattan apartment when his cell phone pings with a text from his brother, Dylan, hating on his hometown. Eleven years younger than Joel, Dylan, a high-school senior, is the celebrated quarterback of his school’s football team in the tiny, fictional town of Bentley, Texas. Dylan announces to Joel that he hates football. Joel has had a “muted” relationship with his family since he escaped, via tennis scholarship, the particular claustrophobia of a rural town suffering a slow-but-sure economic death and made a life for himself as a gay man in New York. Joel wants to know what’s wrong with hating football. How else I’m gonna get out of this place? As the despondent texts continue this night, Joel begins to worry about his little brother and tells Dylan he’s coming home; they’ll make a plan; everything’ll be okay.
Except that Dylan disappears after the Friday-night football game on the same day that (“implacably urban”) Joel returns to Bentley, the town he left after a scandal ten years ago. It soon becomes clear that Dylan’s classmates know more than they’re telling, and Joel cannot trust the town’s authorities. He will have to discover for himself what happened to his brother; in the process, Joel will uncover secrets that some people will go to desperate lengths to protect and the ancient, preternatural pact those people serve.
The Bright Lands is the debut novel from John Fram, who grew up in, according to the chamber of commerce, the Heart of Texas. Fram lives in New York now and has written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, and Pacific Standard, among other outlets. This debut is bold, brash, and disturbing, boasting an assured, righteous young voice calling out the contradictions, hypocrisies, and repression that allow the horrors of abuse to root and grow generational damage as history repeats itself.
I grew up in West Texas and attended Permian High School; my graduating class departed the year before Buzz Bissinger arrived to research what has become the equally celebrated and infamous Friday Night Lights. I knew these charmed man-boys who were the closest to celebrity that most of them would ever approach, a pitiful privilege that lasted until the end of the season or a season-ending injury. At Fram’s fictional high school, they laid off all of the teachers’ aides to buy new football uniforms. At my school, the budget for athletic tape was larger than the English department’s budget for literature.
Fram tells his story in multiple, third-person-limited narrations. This technique is effective as The Bright Lands accelerates headlong and heedlessly into the climax, and the points-of-view cycle ever faster; however, the cast is large, and the sheer numbers are sometimes unwieldy. This contributes to the length of the novel; the climax consumes more than a hundred pages. But Fram is skilled at introducing backstory through dialogue and flashbacks, fleshing out his personalities. He also has a good ear for dialogue and speech patterns. His characters employ a sardonic wit, some to deflect, others to inflict.
The Bright Lands belongs firmly in my subgenre of East Texas Gothic. Fram is adept at sketching a menacing but diffuse sense of foreboding; he’ll have you glancing over your shoulder into shadows and paying extra attention to that noise you may or may not have heard, which may or may not have come from your backyard.
Broken men and frightened men. A missing shirt, a bloody jacket, a bloody sock. Escort ads and drugs and dick pics, oh my. Bag boys, old boys, golden boys, gone. A hate crime or a love crime. A shallow creek, an iron slab, a pit.
This tale of Faustian bargains, Robert Johnson at the crossroads, is a tragedy almost Greek.
John Fram is a writer from Texas. He has written for the Atlantic, the New York Times, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Bright Lands, is due out in July 2020 from Hanover Square Press. He lives in New York.