In Cora Carmack’s latest novel, All Broke Down, Silas is a troubled football star and Dylan is an idealistic college activist. They meet in jail. He was there after fighting with a former friend and teammate in a bar and she after she handcuffed herself to a pole outside the homeless shelter she was protesting the closure of. They like each other immediately but he’s distant and arrogant while she’s idealistic and ambitious. When Silas’ football coach threatens to bench him unless he finally cleans up his act, he turns immediately to Dylan and asks for her type-A, organized, goody-goody help.
There’s a lot to like about this book. Carmack creates full, complete characters whose motivation you easily understand and whose chemistry with each other is glorious in its sizzle and sexiness. When Silas is trying to convince Dylan to help him, he gets right to the point: “Because Jesus, Dylan,” he says to her. “I’ve never cared less about my problems than when I had my fingers inside you. I think I could forget the whole world if I had my tongue there instead.” Carmack, whose sense of humor often makes me actually laugh out loud while reading, gives Dylan one of my favorite lines in the whole book after Dylan agrees to help Silas: “now I’m stuck with some dude that is apparently the biggest jackass this side of wherever Shia LaBeouf is currently standing.” (Note: I’m always here for Shia LaBeouf shade.)
This book, though, is truly worth it because of how Carmack brings together the idealism of Dylan, Silas’ loyalty to the team he loves, and the reality of the intersection of sexual assault and college football. (Spoiler alert!) Towards the end of the book, Silas and Dylan find a drunk, unconscious woman in a bedroom, one of his teammates having just left the room. Having seen the teammate zipping up his pants after his exit, Silas knows immediately what has happened and he does the thing you are supposed to do: he calls the police and he reports his teammate for sexual assault.
Carmack doesn’t once have Silas doubt what he saw. He only ever doubts the criminal justice system that, in the end, does what it normally does in cases of sexual assault: nothing. Silas, narrating the story, says, “My statement for the police takes even less time, and when it’s over, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth because no one mentions anything about arresting Carter. All I keep hearing is that Stella doesn’t remember, and Dylan and I didn’t see anything actually take place. I tell them what he said during our fight, about me not being able to prove anything, but they only nod and write it down. They don’t say he was wrong. The cops promise it’s all taken care of, but it doesn’t feel that way to me, not in the slightest.”
It’s heartbreaking to read along as Silas realizes nothing will happen, that the only justice offered will be the teammate’s indefinite suspension from the team. It could, if you are like me, make you cry a little bit.
I write a lot about college football and sexual assault; it’s kinda my beat. The care with which Carmack tells this story is phenomenal, not only because she does it in a culture that so rarely handles sexual assault cases with the care that victims deserve but also because I read a lot of romance novels with male sports stars as protagonists and it’s not uncommon for the trope to pop up of the jealous, fame-seeking woman trying to ruin his career by falsely accusing him of rape. I have, in fact, quit reading books deep into them because of this.
By the time I got to the author note at the end of the book, I knew that I would be telling everyone to read this book. So, go read All Broke Down.
I’ll end this with Carmack’s words because they are good words no matter in what context they appear: “I could throw statistics at you all day long, but I think it’s clear that victims of sexual assault are continually and heinously overlooked, blamed and re-victimized, and left without justice. As readers, as people, we might not have the capacity to change the justice system. But as Dylan says in the book, we can change one person’s perspective at a time. We can notice. We can speak up. We can teach this generation, my generation, that the way sexual assault is viewed and treated in this country is not okay, so that when it is our turn to step into the shoes of political office and criminal justice, we can continue changing the narrative from a place of power. And more than anything, we can support. And we can empower. We can love. We can be better.”