Because comparisons to other A-list writers are often irresistible when describing a debut novel, here you go: It’s Bret Easton Ellis meets Stephen King, with setting by Buzz Bissinger. 

When pitching John Fram’s The Bright Lands (Hanover Square Press), perhaps the author’s agent described it along those lines when it went out on submission to editors. I don’t know. What I do know is that all three of those legendary scribes are likely to embrace this book. 

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Watch BookTrib’s interview with Fram on crime writers and how their depiction of law enforcement has justified excessive and lethal police force here.

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It’s a propulsive, beautifully written thriller, guaranteed to get under your skin — sinister and subversive, vicious and tender, full of both supernatural evil and cold-hearted, realistic cruelty. It’s also a proud work of queer fiction. 

The story is centered in the fictional small town of Bentley, Texas. Based on weekend trips taken by various characters to Galveston and Dallas, I’d locate it somewhere in Deep East Texas. It’s a sprawling region of a sprawling state, dotted with tiny towns where one pastime dominates the local landscape: high school football.

This is Trump country, full of hard-right ideals, loads of guns and not a lot of tolerance for boys who might be a little … different. If that sounds like the worst possible place in America to grow up gay, the book’s main character, Joel Whitley, would agree with you. As soon as he could, Joel got the hell out. He’s now a haunted, hard-partying, but highly successful data analyst in New York City. That is, until he gets a text from his younger brother, Dylan, now the prince of the town, as the Bentley Bison’s starting quarterback. 

Dylan’s disappearance, soon after a Friday night lights triumph, sets this mystery in motion — and sends Joel Whitley back into the black heart of his hometown. The secrets he begins to undercover are more than your small-town garden variety. Because, beneath Bentley, there exists a presence that lurks in the dreams of every citizen.

Around halfway through the novel, I wondered if this supernatural layer of the story was necessary. The characters and the plot were more than capable of delivering the twists and frights without the presence of a buried monster prowling the town. However, when this beast finally emerges, well, Stephen King eat your heart out. 

As in so many football-obsessed small towns, there is a clique of players who seem to exist above the law in Bentley. For those fleeting teenage years, these boys reach an early peak to lives that fail to hold much promise after graduation — at least for those who decide to stay. The best years of our lives goes an oft-repeated refrain. However, when the reader reaches the Bright Lands, you might think again. 

Buy this book!

Photo credit: Luke Fontana

About John Fram:

John Fram is a writer from Texas. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard and elsewhere. The Bright Lands is his debut novel. He lives in New York.