In college football coach Harold Gravely, Louisiana novelist John Ed Bradley has created one of the most outrageous rogues in American fiction since Ken Kesey's Randle Patrick McMurphy of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. And like McMurphy before him, Gravely comes to no good end in Bradley's The Best There Ever Was (Atlantic Monthly Press, $19.95), a mordantly funny, ultimately sad recounting of the coach's quixotic quest for gridiron immortality. "I'm boss hardhead," he announces to anyone within earshot. "Coach of the Tenpenny Eleven, the Old Man. My name is Gravely; it's Harold Gravely." It was Gravely's inspirational, if disgusting, pregame speech that drove his team to an upset victory over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and earned it lasting fame as the Tenpenny Eleven. The coach was carried off the field that day on the shoulders of his two stars, Pogo Reese and Little Shorty Grieg.
But that was nearly 30 years ago, and since then Gravely's job has been in more or less constant jeopardy at a university in Louisiana that bears a remarkable resemblance to LSU, because its colors are purple and gold and its teams are the Tigers. Gravely has certainly given the university's board of supervisors just cause to can him. He is cursed with a "mortal craving" for bourbon. He makes love to his secretary, the obliging Mrs. Nancy Claude, on the Naugahyde couch in his office. His recruiting practices are disreputable. On one occasion, he humiliates an influential alumnus at a recruiting party by tearing off the vain man's toupee and flinging it at two female guests, "who, leaping onto the arms of their chairs, squealed as if a mouse had nipped their ankles." On another, he assaults the team mascot and then, after discovering the person inside the Tiger's costume is a coed, gets her drunk. "If I was to drink and make a spectacle of myself," Gravely says in his defense to the chairman of the board of supervisors, "it wouldn't of been with no spastic ingenue dressed like a beast." And it is after a post-Sugar Bowl drinking session with the coach that Tenpenny star Pogo Reese kills a man he thinks has scratched his car. Gravely then marries Reese's 18-year-old girlfriend, Rena Cummins.
And yet this monster is somehow affecting, and there is a mad logic behind even his most scurrilous acts. He is, for starters, dying. Or at least he elects death over being fired. When a physician tells him he has a lung cancer that might well be treated successfully with surgery and radiation, he asks the team doctor about his chances of making the bowl season without treatment. Of course! The presumably fatal illness will win him the sympathy of the board, preserve his job and gain him the honor of having his statue erected at the north end of the 80,000-seat Tiger Stadium. "I want to be standing, pointing straight ahead as if at the past before me," he says of the proposed monument. "I want to be twenty pounds lighter, hard and strong and manly. I don't want this moon face I got."
Gravely poses for his statue at odd moments, once while standing up in bed in the wee hours, his outstretched hand aimed at a televangelist on the flickering bedroom TV. " 'Why are you doing that?' " his wife asks him. "A disappointed smile lifted his lips; his eyes watered but didn't blink. 'What does it look like I'm doing?' he answered, then flopped on his back and pulled the covers over his head."
Rena Gravely is no mere supporting player in this wild drama; she is a substantial subplot. She daydreams often of those magical nights when Pogo Reese danced with her and took her for long drives in his Cadillac. Gravely, who swept her off her feet, has transported her from youth to melancholy middle age in what seems like no time at all. But frail as her psyche may seem, she has her resources.
Bradley is probably considered a writer of "Southern" novels. His first book, Tupelo Nights, was an acclaimed example of this genre, and there are traces in his new one, particularly in the eccentric secondary characters, of that much more famous Louisiana writer Walker Percy. But The Best There Ever Was is not strictly Southern. Gravely could just as easily be coaching at Ohio State. And it is certainly not a football novel. No games, not even the Tenpenny triumph, are described here, thank heaven. And the contemporary players are only foils and stooges. No, what we have here is merely fine writing by a new master of not so much black as bleak comedy. The Best There Ever Was is a fascinating piece of work.