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Paul Hemphill, a journalist noted for his writings about the rural South and offbeat sports figures, has parlayed those two interests into an unusually appealing, entertaining first novel. It's called Long Gone (Viking, $8.95), and it's perfect reading to while away a sultry summer afternoon.

The time is the mid-50s and the setting is Graceville, Fla., "the smallest town in organized baseball." Graceville's Class-D baseball team, the Oilers, seems "determined to become the most pitiful club in the history of organized baseball" as it staggers through loss after loss to teams from Dothan, Crestview, Fort Walton Beach, Panama City, Eufaula, Opp and Andalusia.

The Oilers are managed by Stud Cantrell, the quintessential burnt-out case of baseball: "These were the worst times, late at night, when the utter finality of his descent was so painfully clear: game over, lights out, booze gone, woman asleep. He had not experienced eight straight hours of sleep since the day he turned thirty and realized his bubble had burst. 'Yeah,' he was fond of saying, 'I got a great future behind me.' "

But then good things begin to happen. Stud falls in with an ample country girl, improbably named Dixie Box, who tends to his heart as well as his libido. A good-field, no-hit second baseman named Jamie Weeks shows up and brings a touch of innocence back into Stud's life. And the team—aided in no small amount by a black slugger whom Stud passes off as a Venezuelan in a concession to local racial attitudes—begins to make a fierce run at the lordly Dothan Cardinals.

Long Gone is a relatively slender novel (213 pages), but there's a lot to it. It is a sharp, unsentimental portrait of the minor league life of "bad lights, rutted infields, rickety grandstands, swampy dressing rooms, ancient buses, hand-me-down uniforms, drunken fans." Hemphill carefully eschews facile nostalgia, but his sketches of small-town manners and mores are sensitive and whimsically affectionate. And his depiction of the interplay between Studs and Jamie, between world-weariness and innocence, is knowing and unexpectedly strong.

There's a lot of familiar territory here, need it be said, but Hemphill makes it fresh and attractive. He's been there himself—he had a cup of coffee in Class-D ball a quarter century ago—and he makes it all come to life, believably and memorably.