Before eviscerating Bleachers, John Grisham's half-baked new novel, let's take a moment to give the man his due. Since 1989, Grisham has produced 13 sturdy and wildly successful legal thrillers, best-selling page-turners that include ''The Firm,'' ''The Runaway Jury,'' and ''The King of Torts.'' In 2001, he attempted to spread his wings with ''A Painted House,'' a square, plodding, but perfectly respectable coming-of-age story set in rural Arkansas. The same year he also published ''Skipping Christmas,'' a clumsy but droll spoof of holiday excesses.
Grisham's latest foray outside the law, however, is a sloppy gridiron mess, a thin and flimsy meditation on football and the dubious role it can play in the lives of young men. The author played football at Mississippi's Southaven High School, and he has built his plot, such as it is, around former all-American quarterback Neely Crenshaw, now in his 30s, who returns to his hometown when he hears that his brilliant old coach is dying. Eddie Rake was a martinet whose locker-room speeches were riddled with macho cliches: ''If you're winnin', never quit. If you're losin', never quit. If you're hurt, never quit.'' Inspiring and magnetic, Rake was also cruel, unbending, and dangerous. He once broke Crenshaw's nose in a fit of temper and later killed a kid with his brutal training methods (heatstroke was for sissies). They love him, they hate him, and as Rake slowly expires off stage, his onetime players congregate on the ''hallowed ground'' of the football field to reminisce about the guy.
Never a terrific stylist, Grisham doesn't show any flair for character here. The slick young lawyers in his best books come to life only as they try to worm their way out of dangerous or morally sticky situations. But the aging jocks of ''Bleachers'' have nothing to do but talk -- and talk they do, page after turgid page, about passes, huddles, tackles, and career-ending injuries. To call these characters cardboard is a slander against paper dolls. Grisham's idea of personality is to give the book's only gay man lots of earrings and a wacky passion for Guatemalan coffee.
The women fare even worse, drawn in the crude primary colors of either madonna or whore. Crenshaw's old high school sweetheart, Cameron, is ''pure class'' -- auburn hair, smart glasses, and ''tight faded jeans that declared that this was a lady who stayed in shape.'' Meanwhile, Brandy (a.k.a. Screamer), the tramp who seduced Crenshaw away from wholesome Cameron, has been spotted in a Las Vegas casino, where she's a cocktail waitress punished with ''bleached hair, thick makeup, twenty or so extra pounds.'' It's a pity we never meet fat, louche Screamer; she might have breathed some life into this moribund and misbegotten little novel.