Hold on to your 10-gallon hat: The Bright Lands, the talented John Fram’s debut novel, is a tale about “good ole boy” Texas football, except Fram has cleverly woven in an eerie twist to this familiar story about testosterone-fueled gridiron glory. Beneath the “copper-colored flatlands” of Bentely, Texas lies murder, addiction, homophobia, and a dark force that seems to feed on the evil that men can do. Think Friday Night Lights meets True Detective.
Joel Whitely, a former standout quarterback for the Bentely Bisons is drawn back to his home town after receiving cryptic and troubling texts from his younger brother, Dylan, the current Bison quarterback wunderkind. On his journey home and just a few miles outside of Bentely, Joel locks eyes with the high school mascot, a life-sized stuffed bison riding in the flatbed of a rusty pick-up. Joel is suddenly overwhelmed by memories of the brutality he suffered long ago at the hands of the Bison Herd. As an outed 17-year-old boy, he had no choice but to get out of Bentley and he did, ultimately finding success and contentment as an openly gay man in Manhattan.
Shortly after Joel’s return to Bentley, Dylan is found with his throat slit, face-down in a ditch far from town. This sets in motion the central action of the story, which Fram delivers through a tightly constructed police procedural. Joel is determined to solve his brother’s murder. “Call it guilt. Call it revenge. Calling it setting odds,” he explains to his former high school girlfriend and Bentely police officer Starsha Clark, whose own brother has been missing for over a decade. Together, the two work in tandem to unravel Dylan’s last few days of life. When Joel discovers two thousand dollars in cash and oxycodone in his brother’s room, he begins to realize that his brother led another life — one that led him far from the football fields of Bentley and to the gritty underbelly of Texas cities.
As Starsha’s investigation runs into road block after road block, she realizes that there is another side to Bentely, too, one that powerful men will do anything to conceal, including framing Dylan’s murder on fellow Bison, Jamal Johnson. Jamal is a convenient scapegoat – he’s poor, Black, and the second-string quarterback who’s played a scant forty-six minutes in four years. Jamal has the perfect motive. As Joel and Starsha string together a myriad of clues and evidence, a terrifying pattern unfolds. A sinister force has been preying on and brutalizing the carefree boys of Bentley for generations, and it is familiar to both Joel and Starsha. This fiendish creature with the blackest eyes, the one that lures the young and innocent beyond Bentley, to the land of The Flats, to The Bright Lands, has been haunting their dreams since childhood. Joel has the sudden recognition that he was right, after all, when he left Bentley — “there’s something wrong with this place.” Now, he’s driven to stay until he finds justice for his brother and all the other young men who have suffered in this bleak place, including himself.
At 460 pages, this is an ambitious debut. Fram relies on a vast cast of characters to tell this tale of human cruelty and a supernatural evil. Several of these characters — from the perky Bissonette squad of cheerleaders to the predatory teacher-preacher and the power-obsessed small town sheriff — border on the cliché and archetypal. These characters cast a shadow of ennui over various scenes, and they hint at the trappings of plot device. While reading the novel, there are moments of temptation to skim in order to arrive at more compelling and authentic scenes. The Bright Lands could benefit from winnowing down its extraneous characters and narrowing the story’s arc, which is quite sprawling. The story begins deep in the weeds of family drama replete with absent fathers, prodigal sons, and distant or deceased mothers, then moves to a crime solving police procedural, and finishes with a supernatural catastrophic standoff. Perhaps 406 pages is just not enough space to weave together all of the fascinating strands of this story.
Taken as a whole, though, this is a fine work of literary fiction. Fram’s prose is lucid and unyielding; it possesses a haunting starkness, much like the dried-up towns of the Texas flatlands. The Bright Lands speaks to the dangers of small worlds and narrow views. There is incredible brutality in this story but there is also tenderness and hope. In the end, Joel finds the justice he so desperately sought for his brother and for himself. Ultimately, both men find a measure of happiness in who they are. “Out here,” Dylan shouts to his brother in a faraway dream, “I can still be everything I always wanted to be…And I love it.”
The Bright Lands
by John Fram
Hanover Square Press
Published July 7, 2020
Small-town narratives generally do a good job of putting the fear of the unknown on the spot, so I’m glad to see that The Bright Lands tackles that topic well. Good work on the review!