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Distinctly Southern Melancholy

By Philip M. Rubin

SPORTS novels seem to fall into two central categories: those which describe a great triumph or defeat and those that are more interested in what happens after the game is over. In both, the sport and its powerful ability to overshadow a life is prominent. John Ed Bradley's new book, The Best There Ever Was, hovers between these two categories.

The book is, on the surface, a football story. Harold Gravely is the head football coach at a large university in the South. Having captured the national championship by defeating Clemson in the Sugar Bowl 20 years ago, Gravely has produced a series of losing, embarrassing seasons. Gravely also faces lung cancer, a dead marriage, and a town of angry, Southern football fanatics who call him late at night and make insulting comments about the size of his wife.

This is what happens in the book in a nutshell. It would be inaccurate to say that any of the book's events are presented in some form of logical order. True, it begins with a page or two of description of the Sugar Bowl triumph in which Gravely was hoisted onto the shoulders of his players and carried across the field. But time is hazy here--everything, from a collection of scrapbooks, to the very presence of Gravely's wife, Rena, brings us back to the time of the coach's past football glory.

In fact, very little in this world is concrete. None of the characters lead satisfying lives. Rena finds little to do besides obsessively clean the house, and when she does leave, it is to accompany her husband to one of his press conferences. Once, she drives around the town aimlessly until she ends up in the middle of a movie theater filled with screaming children watching an animated film.

Gravely's life is equally depressing. When not living in the past, he tries to come up with a sentence to engrave into the soon-to-be-erected statue of himself. He constantly eats and drinks and forms more of an attachment to a pack of Juicy Fruit than his wife. At times, Gravely's humanity and very existence seems questionable--he is a decaying mess who spits blood and is infertile.

Even the minor characters, from Gravely's secretary to the field's chief groundskeeper, are dissatisfied with life. The secretary cheats on her husband with Gravely, and the groundskeeper is an alcoholic. The townspeople who harass Gravely must have pathetic lives or they would not be calling the coach in the middle of the night solely to insult his wife.

These patterns lend an empty, dissatisfied feel to the book. We are in the middle of a decayed, small world in which a housewife dances alone in an empty living room, and an aging, cancer-ridden football coach stands on a bench in the rain and pleads for support to a vacant, deaf street.

THE book's tone is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut's novels never fasten down on a specific moment in time and progress from there. Some of his more memorable characters are the couple on airplane in Cat's Cradle, who boast that they are Hoosiers. Natural, comfortable feelings of closeness are never present in these novels, whose characters find satisfaction only in artificial, relatively cold institutions.

But Vonnegut is also known for his wit and ability to create bizarre characters by finding the irony in everyday life. Bradley, too, has this ability, and takes advantage of it to inject his novel with a sharp wit and satire.

For instance, Gravely is the very parody of the football coach most of us see on television every Saturday, berating his players and gnawing on an age-old cigar butt. But Gravely turns this stereotype into a source of humor--for a while he walks around campus with the help of a cane, which he doesn't need but thinks makes him seem more distinguished and almighty.

Bradley's wit spares no one, not even the sculptor who is to create the statue of the coach. Oni Welby-White is a strange figure who hangs hundreds of pictures of the coach in his decaying hotel suite and spends most of his time crafting statues of Christ and Mary.

The dark humor and feeling of emotional, distinctly Southern, emptiness and dissatisfaction are the strong points of The Best There Ever Was. Unfortunately, the novel is chiefly about these feelings and not about novelistic progress. Bradley does not take us anywhere. We are left lingering in Gravely's depressing town. It is more an aimless series of incidents, each of which emits these tones.

The book does not know what it wants to be--is it a football book, a picture of a small Southern town, or something else? Clearly, it is possible to review The Best There Ever Was without mentioning much about football. It seems as if Bradley simply thought the sports setting would be catchy. Instead, it leaves us feeling confused and in a state of limbo, much like the feelings which Bradley's townspeople experience every day.

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