THE BEST THERE EVER WAS

By John Ed Bradley

Atlantic Monthly Press. 336 pp. $19.95

John Ed Bradley's second novel, which floats a glossy blimp-size football on its cover, is less about sportsmanship than it is about the devastations of myth-making and hype. It relates one man's protracted defeat, the sort of soul-quashing defeat derived from winning big once and never again. If the book's antihero is any wiser in the end, it's eleventh-hour wisdom: too little, too late.

"The Best There Ever Was" (an ironic title) is mostly an indictment: a brutal, darkly comic story of college coaching gone awry and lives that are blighted, even sundered, by the antics of one ruthless, foulmouthed, bestial megalomaniac, Coach Harold Gravely, a neutron bomb of a man. Believe me, the above description is most kind.

But is Coach Gravely an anomaly? It's true I was never a cheerleader, but are the shamelessly gross shenanigans of behind-the-scenes college football givens of success? If Bradley's fiction were required reading for every booster club member, well, it might give some athletic departments pause.

I wanted to pity Coach Gravely. After all, he hasn't had a championship team since his Tenpenny Eleven won the national title some 30 years ago. His college -- located somewhere in Louisiana -- wants him fired. He's listlessly married to a woman who sublimates her own unhappiness in obsessive housework. At 63 he's a paranoid has-been, loveless (unless you count narcissism), a heavy drinker, a philanderer (the secretary he's involved with likes to talk about her yeast infections), and, worst of all, he has just discovered he has lung cancer. But what Harold is really suffering from is a terminal case of arrested development -- which makes him a tedious character to go the distance with.

He's simply too benighted for pity. He punishes his ballplayers ("hardheads") with torturous training sessions he calls "gassers." He makes them grovel, run through hurricanes, howl like dogs, and he verbally assaults the ones who lie gasping, turning blue. "This quitter's got a twin brother who eats Kotex sandwiches for lunch," Harold tells one collapsed sophomore. The boy is dragged off "by the heels and his head leaves a trail like a wet mop."

During the course of the novel Harold publicly humiliates his long-suffering wife, Rena; he beats up innocent folks who come creeping around his office (he thinks they're spies, out to steal his strategies); to gird his own reputation he spurns a champion "hardhead" who gets sent to prison; he uses his cancer diagnosis to manipulate the board of governors and townspeople into erecting a statue in his honor, then destroys the artist's model because it doesn't conform to his notion of how he should be commemorated. And the reader's got to endure some 300 pages of his snorty, corruptive clout until he finally meets the comeuppance I was willing to dish out to him a couple of chapters into the book.

How many times must we listen to him reminisce about his glory days, reciting the famous speech he made in the locker room to the Tenpenny Eleven shortly before their historic victory? And although much of Harold's dialogue seems Hollywood-bound, page after page his "manner rivals that of a deranged person beating back the ghosts of a lost life, a worthless past."

It's a liability for a writer, even one as obviously gifted as Bradley, to take on a character as boorish and self-deluding as Harold Gravely. Even the comedy that surrounds him is the snarling, mean-spirited sort, so that a reader feels mean laughing. Because what pit bulls do when they're cornered and poked -- and Harold is a pit bull -- isn't funny.

I wish the author had focused more on Rena, the neglected wife who could never bear the children she wanted. Rena has dimension, and the most engaging scenes in the novel involve her struggle to apprehend her role in Harold's melodrama. She provides occasions for humanity and tenderness. But she's ultimately overwhelmed by Harold's insistent wheedling violence, and her reflective presence often seems a ploy to have us take these unexamined lives more seriously than we take cartoons.

I wanted to be a fan of "The Best There Ever Was" because there's a lot of grace under pressure in Bradley's writing. But here's what Coach Gravely thinks about fans: "Although he is aware that without fans there could be no heroes, and without heroes, no statues, Harold had concluded ... {fans} are men and women who live the vicarious life of the leech, sucking the juice out of others in order to feel juiced themselves."

I suppose the same might be said of critics, but Coach Gravely's game is one I could have missed.

The reviewer is the author of the novel "Bobby Rex's Greatest Hit" and a collection of stories, "Teen Angel."