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Jay Cronley has no artistic pretensions in his little novel about big-time college football. Fall Guy (Doubleday, $6.95). It's a modest tale that offers a modest moral or two, a number of solid laughs and a rather tough-minded examination of the manifold sins committed in the athletic meat market.

The narrator, Ben Elliott, is a big fish in a small pond. He is a superstar high school running back in a Texas country town, a bruiser who augments muscle with finesse and who is the apple of recruiters' eyes from California to Massachusetts. The final contenders for his gridiron services are two fictitious universities that bear suspicious resemblances to Oklahoma and Texas. Their battle over him is wild and fierce, with the stakes being raised each time around, and in the end the Texas school wins. Says Elliott:

"The coach came back and made a counteroffer to both me and daddy, so I signed to play football at his school. It was the hardest decision I ever made in my life. The coach promised daddy, in addition to an auto service center, a taco hut, and if there is anything college kids love, it is tacos. The coach promised me $500 a month laundry money. I remember telling him, 'Sir, I only have four or five pairs of jeans and a few shirts,' and he and the other coaches laughed hysterically. I was a kid with a sense of humor."

He needs one, for college proves to be strewn with pitfalls. There are all those lovely girls, for example, with their energetic ways of expressing their enthusiasm for football. There is the classroom, where Ben wrestles with such weighty courses as "theory of golf and "theory of basketball." And there is the football field, where Ben's body is shredded like a tearaway jersey. Crack goes the collarbone. Snap goes a leg bone. And poof goes Ben's career.

There is a lot more to the story than this, and much of it is quite funny. In particular, that goes for some of the secondary characters, notably a hulking lineman named Prison Cornelius who has a limited but colorful vocabulary and a large appetite for mayhem; and Rhonda, a buxom cheerleader who goes off to college where she gives up sex for sociology.

In between laughs, Cronley makes some serious points. Ben's father is a poignant example of what can happen to a parent who tries to live through his child, and the hypocrisy of big-time football is devastatingly depicted. You may not fall head over heels for Fall Guy, but you'll like it.