The Best There Ever Was.John Ed Bradley.Atlantic...


November 04, 1990|By ANN G. SJOERDSMA The Blues Route. Hugh Merrill. Morrow. 236 pages. $17.95.

The Best There Ever Was.

John Ed Bradley.

Atlantic Monthly.

336 pages. $19.95. Harold Gravely is an oozing carbuncle on the butt of Souther life. The football coach at a Louisiana university, Gravely achieved his crowning glory 30 years ago when his "Tenpenny Eleven" beat Clemson in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship. Tenpenny? you ask. Before the big game, "hardheadharold" exhorted his boys to be so "enthusiastic" that they would need two tenpenny nails stuck up their anuses to block any "spillage."

Brutal, vulgar, crude, ignorant and paranoid, now that th hero-worshipers-turned-executioners are demanding his resignation, Harold, at 63, is a washed-up loser, wallowing in self-delusion and pity. He is also boozing and banging his secretary, while his long-suffering wife Rena, once a hopeful teen-age bride, folds rags at home. Having tricked the university into erecting a statue in his honor, Harold is obsessed with striking immortal poses and composing laughable life-is-for-winners inscriptions.

A former Washington Post sportswriter, John Ed Bradley adeptl captures in his second novel the "Coach is God" mania that grips the Southern consciousness and transforms mere good ole boys into corrupt engineers of human wreckage. A master at creating complex "fringe" characters, Mr. Bradley steers a disturbing course down a haunted country road with the headlights off -- and doesn't flinch when the inevitable fatal crash occurs.

The only thing Hugh Merrill knows about the blues is that h likes them.

That might be enough to establish him as a cool rockin' daddy-o at his favorite Georgia gin mill, but it sure doesn't give him license to write a book about the blues.

"The Blues Route" is the classic white-boy-lost-in-the-blues fantasy, a road trip that follows the music from its birth in the Mississippi Delta, up Highway 61 to Memphis and Chicago, and back down to New Orleans, over to Texas and west to California. This is powerful material from strange worlds. But through a lack of knowledge, craft and most of all heart, Mr. Merrill renders the adventure lame.

Although the narrative stinks, Mr. Merrill did point his microphone at many of the right people, and because of that it is worth flipping through the pages to find quotes from Charley Patton's 73-year-old nephew, Memphis singer Rufus Thomas and Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz. He goes to the right places, like the Dockery Farms Plantation near Cleveland, Miss. (although he could have gone many more places where dozens of writers had not traveled before), but into these romantic landscapes he inserts inane observations and his boring self.



Belva Plain.


409 pages. $21.95.

Whether it is successful novels or movies, sequels tend t rework the same material rather than breathe new life and concepts into it. In "Harvest," Belva Plain has written the fourth novel dealing with the Werner family; surprisingly, it is as fresh as the saga's first book, "Evergreen."

Paul Werner, the family's patriarch, is in his 70s and wants tensure that his life and family are in order. One obvious loose end is Iris. Paul fathered her in "Evergreen," and since she was the result of an affair he never was part of her life. Paul wants to make amends.

The time is the 1960s. Iris has grown and married a successfusurgeon, and is the mother of four children. But her life is hardly idyllic. Her marriage to Theo is unhappy and has been jeopardized by several infidelities. Her son, Steven, is a student radical and has been implicated in several acts of violence. A terrible accident threatens Theo's future as a surgeon. While remaining in the shadows, Paul works hard in assisting Iris and her family through their travail. "Harvest" is a complex novel and the issues raised by Ms. Plain are not easily resolved, but it is a compelling and a worthy addition to a splendid series.


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