Picks and Pans Review: Bleachers

updated 09/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By John Grisham

You know this country has gone loony for football when even the king of the legal thriller puts down his briefcase and picks up a pair of shoulder pads. In this short novel Grisham cheers the autumnal splendor of high school football as played under those glowing, and often cruel, Friday-night lights. The central characters—a cocky quarterback and a coach with a God complex—are as thinly drawn as those in Grisham's holiday stinkeroo Skipping Christmas, but the author's passion for the game—and sharp play-by-play writing—lead the book to a narrow victory.

Neely Crenshaw is in a glory daze. The thirtysomething loner with a bum knee and a failed football career returns to his hometown, where he remains beloved for his high school quarterbacking heroics. The only bigger celeb is his former coach, the tyrannical but near-unbeatable Eddie Rake, now on his deathbed. Unsure whether he loves or hates Rake, Crenshaw dives into the past for answers. Grisham can be cheesy when waxing on about how boys become men. But when the talking stops and the tackling starts, most notably in a championship battle, his writing is as taut and twisting as a well-thrown spiral. (Doubleday, $19.95)

BOTTOM LINE: And the crowd goes wild

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