Sunday, December 30, 2012

Plaza de Armas Review: "Slingin' Sam" by Joe Holley.


Slingin' Sam Baugh and the making of modern football

For better or worse, the star football quarterback has been an iconographic figure in Texas and American culture since the pigskin was used for something other than cooking. The most recent example is Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, whose Heisman capped a storybook season, but the list is very long. Paul Hornung, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Troy Aikman, the Mannings — any fan can create a list. For Joe Holley, the list begins with Sam Baugh, the Texan who changed the game starting in the 1930s, when quarterbacks were just part of a wing formation and tailbacks made some of the biggest plays.

“Sam was the bridge between the leather-helmet era and the modern,” writes Holley, a seasoned journalist who once worked at the Express-News and is currently political editor at the Houston Chronicle. “Before Sam Baugh, football closely resembled rugby, with tightly packed linemen trying to open holes for ball carriers running primarily between tackles on a tighter field without hash marks. Confident enough to throw the ball from any spot on the field, on any down, Sam wrenched football free from its sclerotic past and made it a hell of a lot more fun to watch.”

The subtitle of Holley’s Slingin’ Sam —“The Life and Times of the Greatest Quarterback Ever to Play the Game”— is a straightforward declaration of a straightforward history, laden with games and stats. It provides a valuable look at the down-home TCU grad and subsequent Washington Redskins marquee draw who with his laser-sharp passes changed the offensive strategies of the country’s burgeoning sports industry, the NFL.
But there’s another story. As a boy, Holley, in the company of his dad and two brothers, met Baugh during the latter’s appearance at a Waco sporting goods store in the mid-1950s. You could almost see it as a passing scene in Terry Malick’s The Tree of Life. The brothers got Baugh’s autograph, and promptly lost it, but the big man obviously struck a chord. Years later, encouraged by colleagues at the Washington Post, Holley decided to restore the public’s awareness of a half-remembered legend. The result has appeal both to football buffs and devotees of Texas history.

Holley positions Baugh squarely in that extended Depression era of Texas, when life in the Lone Star state was, to paraphrase Hobbes, poor, racist, brutish and short. In the Hill Country, a young LBJ was growing up in abject conditions documented in stark detail by Robert Caro. In and around Sweetwater, near Abilene, things weren’t much different, although unlike LBJ’s, Baugh’s family was fortunate to be middle-class — his dad worked for the railroad.

But conditions were right for Baugh to grow physically and mature as an all-around high school athlete and then attend TCU (instead of UT, his initial preference). A standout talent, he was grabbed quickly after college by the former Boston Braves, whose owner, George Marshall, moved them to D.C. and changed their name and fate. Baugh was one of Marshall’s favorites and an extraordinary investment. The young Texan led the team from obscurity to five title games and two NFL championships, in addition to 13 NFL records at three positions in the ’30s and ’40s. He eventually left the game as a player in the early ’50s.

Holley spends considerable time showing, through Marshall’s team, the creation and expansion of the NFL. Throughout, Marshall was despicable. It was largely his racism that kept black players out of the NFL until 1946 and unsigned with the Redskins until 1961, under intense political pressure. When Washington Post sports writer Shirley Povich observed that “the Redskins colors are burgundy, gold and Caucasian,” he was promptly banned from the team clubhouse.

Of course, a lot of pro franchises are run like gilded feudal sweatshops by wealthy moguls with unchecked egos and reactionary social views. It’s something players and fans have to deal with, for better or worse, as Pete Gent notably recounted in North Dallas Forty. Baugh, though, kept his eyes on the game, the sport. In doing so, he assembled victories, honors and respect. Finally, the Redskins lost their mojo, and Baugh got older. He went on to coach the New York Titans (later Jets) and the Houston Oilers (now Texans), and spent his latter years at his Double Mountain ranch, near Rotan. He was one of the first inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Two parts of Baugh’s life might have merited further discussion. The first was the accidental death of a boyhood friend killed by his own .410 shotgun while climbing a fence hunting for rabbits. Such trauma is not something that goes away, and “it would stay with Sam the rest of his life, although he rarely talked about it.” Yet all we know of the possible effects is found in one provocative sentence: “Years later, Sam would take his boys out hunting for jackrabbits, but he would never handle a gun himself.”

A more important need for further exploration, at least to me, is Baugh’s lack of service in World War II, at the top of his career. Reasons are given — the morale-building aspect of pro football for the troops, and Baugh’s second-tier draft status based on an essential occupation as a beef rancher — but they leave more questions than answers. At any time, Baugh could have volunteered, as did tens of thousands of the other 16 million Americans who served in the war. As did, in our time, NFL player Pat Tillman. This lack of action, especially in a man applauded for his strong character, seems inexplicable if not inexcusable. He did, after all, find time to still play football while raising those essential cattle. Without Baugh to clarify his choice, we are unlikely to ever make sense of it.

Nonetheless, by all accounts Sam Baugh was not only a great athlete, but a likable man. He was self-effacing in a way that is rare in a major football hero. With his beloved wife, Mona, he raised a strong, healthy family. He died in 2008 at age 94, his last few years in a nursing home not far from his ranch. Beyond his athletic gifts, his appeal was that he was an average Joe in many ways, not even “buff” by contemporary steroid and weight-room standards. Holley’s biography, which relies heavily on help from Baugh’s family and friends, is clearly a work of love. It also is an important record of a Texan who made a mark in a world that at the time barely knew the state existed, or that football would become an unrivaled metaphor in American culture.

Rod Davis is a literary columnist for Plaza de Armas.

Slingin’ Sam, by Joe Holley is available here.
Foreword by Peyton Manning
University of Texas Press, 2012

Friday, December 21, 2012

Review: "Criminal," by Karin Slaughter. In Plaza de Armas


The way they treat women is: Criminal

The gruesome, complex plot in Karin Slaughter’s latest, Criminal, holds its own nicely, but the takeaway for the reader is a more encompassing horror. Amid the waves of torture as the storyline shifts from mid-1970s Atlanta to present day is a pervasive portrait less about the sociopaths who perpetrate the damage than the ceaseless abuse that is wreaked on the novel’s women — cops, criminals and victims. This twisted world — a thinly disguised, familiar reality — demands both tactical adherence to role-playing in a men’s game and fearless, heroic opposition to it.

I will admit that I had trouble settling into the story. There was the porn-violence of the assaults, the jolts of time-jumping, and the relentless declarative sentences that made me feel as if I were reading a newspaper feature story. Somewhere it began to kick in; an anger so deep it had to be approached in oblique, terse syntax. It became impossible to look away. I admit I got hooked.
Without spoiling the mystery, the plot jumps through decades and generations to coalesce around serial murders against women almost no one ever misses. Will Trent, an agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, wants to solve the case but is pushed back by deputy director Amanda Wagner for reasons she won’t discuss. But they both learn why, as the switchback trail to the source of the bloodlust narrows onto a painful past neither can escape.

In the course of putting together the clues, Will is guided by women who all know him well and in different ways: Amanda, the detective; her ’70s-era partner Evelyn Mitchell; physician girlfriend Sara; and badass ex-wife Angie. In effect the women become the protagonists, and the story becomes theirs. This structural dramatic shift gives Criminal its weight. It also injects cold clarity into the virulent misogyny of the Atlanta police department in the (ostensibly) old days. Slaughter’s view of institutional sexism in cop-world is much tougher than anything seen in most TV crime procedurals or even some of the better crime movies.

Shift to modern day. The killers are found — both low-life and high-born. Amazingly, one of the 1975 victims, “Kitty,” has survived, but at a staggering cost — married to one of the torturers. During their wrap-up interview, Amanda and Will press hard-as-nails Kitty for an explanation. Her choice seems impossible to understand. Amanda insists it’s not too late for help:
“You can leave him. You can leave him right now.”
“Why would I do that?” She seemed genuinely perplexed. “He is my husband.  I love him.”
Her matter-of-fact tone was as shocking as anything Will had heard today. She really seemed to want an answer.
Amanda asked, “How could you? After all he did?”
Kitty snarled out a long stream of smoke. “You know how it is with men.”  She flicked the cigarette into the yard. “Sometimes it’s criminal what a woman has to do.”
The snarl is the dark core of the book. It speaks a truth in which we are all complicit. It is difficult to know how it can be transcended. But not impossible.

Criminal, by Karin Slaughter,  Delacorte Press, 2012, is available here.
Rod Davis is author of Corina’s Way and other works.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

"The Hot Country," by Robert Olen Butler. Review in Plaza de Armas


Riding and writing with Villa in 'The Hot Country'

War correspondents can generally be lumped into one of two categories: heroic carriers of battlefield truths, or complicit tagalongs who function as de-facto propagandists for governments. There is a third mode, less depicted, of the participatory correspondent who sides with the rebels, along the lines of John Reed in both Russia and Mexico. Official journalism doesn’t like this because it’s an affront to their cherished illusion of objective reporting.

But the third path is exactly the one taken by Christopher Marlowe “Kit” Cobb in 1914 Mexico as presented in The Hot Country, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler’s fast-paced entrĂ©e into adventure tales. Add a little Indiana Jones and you get the picture: a smart guy also handy with his fists and firearms, burdened with a dedication to finding out the truth no matter how it lies. Which it does.

The story starts in Veracruz as the U.S., under President Woodrow Wilson, carries out a half-hearted and trumped-up invasion that also puts it in conflict with Imperial Germany, at that time looking for potential allies against the U.S. in what shortly would become World War I.
Cobb, whose mother is a popular theatrical actress with a penchant for drama in her own life, is on assignment from a major Chicago newspaper. A chance meeting with a female Mexican sniper lures Cobb into layers of diplomatic intrigue as he gets wind of a German plot designed to launch a major attack on U.S. soil possibly led by Pancho Villa, supplemented with German arms.

When a high-ranking German officer complete with dueling scar and Prussian macho seeks out Villa to unite all the Mexican revolutionary factions against American intrusions (“You bring a country together by finding someone you can all agree to hate”) Cobb pursues the story. Literally. He assumes the identity of a murdered American spy also trying to infiltrate German intelligence and heads to the interior via train, horse and foot, packing his trusty typewriter, which eventually deflects a saber thrust to save his life.

En route to Villa, Cobb joins one of the leader’s hard-fighting lieutenants, and is forced to defend himself when attacked by hated colorados allied with the dictator Huerta. Proving himself a brave fighter and trustworthy partisan, Cobb is introduced to Villa, played rather a little to the hilt, and ultimately to the Prussian provocateur. Cobb risks his life yet again to prove that the Prussian is trying to deceive Villa, and then escapes to Laredo to telegraph his story on the secret affair to his editor.

As is the fate of many an ambitious reporter, Cobb’s hard-won scoop is spiked. But in this case at the request of President Wilson — as good an audience as one could expect, Cobb concludes. Wilson sends an envoy to explain to Cobb that larger national interests might be wrecked if the German plot actually comes to light. Moreover, the envoy asks Cobb to give up his reporting career to become a spy and actually join the fray rather than just observe it. Cobb agrees, having no interest in remaining with editors he can’t trust, and sets out to become a man of action, not words — in his case a ready transformation.

If one senses the backstory for a career change that will become the storyline of sequels, the four-alarm signal can easily be found in the banner atop the novel’s front cover: “A Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller.” Since this is actually the only such thriller, the publisher cannot be faulted for lack of confidence. But the next episode — there is definitely a sense of the old Saturday afternoon matinee leading man in Cobb — will be welcome. Hopefully in the coming exploits, as Butler gets a stronger sense of the genre, we’ll enjoy more attention to character, and less to frenetic action sequences which, beyond the gritty portrait of early 20th-century Veracruz, also leave little room for developing sense of place. Mexico, in particular, is about place.

The true home of the Cobb books may well be the screen. One assumes the prospect has occurred to Butler. It allows tremendous interpretive possibilities that unite two creative forms in ways writers must embrace more then ever in the new world of e-books and cross-platform marketing. Butler’s not the first literary novelist to move into what is often, and hypocritically, snubbed as a commercial genre. It’s not about money. As with Cobb, there are larger stakes.
The Hot Country, by Robert Olen Butler, can be purchased here.
Rod Davis is author of the forthcoming South, America. He taught detective and spy fiction at UT-Austin.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review: Creole Belle, by James Lee Burke; and The Lost Ones, by Ace Atkins

Southern Crooking: Creole Belle and The Lost Ones

A few years ago on an author’s panel at Gemini Ink, I recommended a new James Lee Burke novel as one of my guilty pleasures. I could see the rolling eyeballs and upturned noses among some of my colleagues, but out in the audience there were plenty of approving smiles. No need for division, though, because in his steady exploration of the flawed and tormented lives of New Iberia deputy sheriff Dave Robicheaux and wingman Clete Purcel, Burke has created a compelling, morally complex world sufficient to absolve any guilt, other than the pleasurable kind. There’s a good reason our cultural fascination with the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, black flag pirates, swashbucklers, Japanese rodin and just about any outlaw-hero imaginable leads to the Bayou Teche and the hardboiled Big Mon.

Creole Belle is 19th in the Robicheaux series, including two that became decent-enough movies. While some of his other character-driven works, such as Feast Day of Fools, which uses Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland as the Robicheauxvian (Robichavian?) protagonist, are also good reads, Burke’s real stuff comes from the demimonde of southern Louisiana.

The nastiness is as vile as it’s ever been, ignited by the dreamlike appearance of Tee Jolie Melton, a missing Creole singer who mysteriously drops in as Dave is hospitalized on morphine with gunshot wounds (inflicted in The Neon Rain). His subsequent obsession with finding her, and then her murdered sister, Blue, pushes the recovering drunk, ex-New Orleans cop ever deeper into the usual rings of the Inferno. There he encounters a former Nazi death-camp guard, a wealthy family of crooked sadists, a remote Gulf island used as a medieval torture chamber, and corporate coverups directly tied to a devastating offshore oil-rig blowout. The odds are long, and Dave knows the game is always rigged:

The people who occupy the underside of society are dog food. Slumlords, zoning board members on a pad, porn vendors, and industrial polluters usually skate. Rich men don’t go to the injection table, and nobody worries when worker ants get stepped on.

Clete plays a bigger role than usual, as the violet-eyed daughter he lost track of years ago turns up, having toughed out a horrible childhood by learning to become a freelance assassin frequently employed by the mob. Clete’s emotional numbness, made even worse by self-medication and recurring nightmares about his tour in Vietnam — same as with Dave — turns his efforts to reconnect into a series of missteps as touching as they are destructive.

Both Clete and Dave always seem trapped by what Dave’s long-suffering wife, Molly, calls his “great weakness.” She tells him, “You’re willing to love people who are corrupt to the core. You turn them into something they’re not and we pay the price for it.” Dave owns up, but says his mistakes come from more than a weakness. They are a result of his own “arrogance.” It’s not a left-handed compliment.

Dave’s twisted quixotic path intertwines with Clete’s for better and worse, mostly the latter. Eventually they prevail: shot, battered and barely surviving. It’s an addictive read, like watching an HBO series that you don’t really want to end even though you have to excuse some missteps, such as too-long digressions into 12-step psychology. Dave’s actions and interactions illuminate his inner demons well enough.

But narrative nuance isn’t really why readers return to these relentlessly bleak quests for redemption. It is to bear witness: to human failure, human weakness, human depravity and human suffering. But also to human valor, human sacrifice, human triumph. All playing out at 33 rpm on a scratchy vinyl of good versus evil in 80-percent humidity under moss-draped cypress. If you don’t believe in good and evil, coexistent, ever at war within the human spirit, you probably won’t care much for Burke. He probably doesn’t mind.

Neither does Robicheaux, trying in the final chapters to make sense of what he, Clete and everyone he cares about have been put through once again:

Saint Paul said there may be angels living among us, and this may have been the bunch he was writing about. If so, I think I have known a few of them. Regardless, it’s a fine thing to belong to a private club based on rejection and difference. I’ll go a step further. I believe excoriation is the true measure of our merit.


The depths to which human nature can descend mark another, perhaps less soul-darkening summer read in Ace Atkins’ The Lost Ones, which marks the return of former Army Ranger Quinn Colson, now a sheriff in Tibbehah County, Mississippi. Like Burke’s law officers, Colson is an imperfect man trying to do better in a corrupt world that can find its way into whatever part of America it chooses. In this case it’s moving into the South via a Mexican drug cartel with ties to a murderously abusive baby-peddling racket. One of Colson’s high-school friends, a Gulf War vet trying to stay alive and sane, becomes the link to both operations by selling illegal assault weapons to a beautiful Mexican woman who may or may not be wrong.

While the blues historian/investigator of Atkins' Nick Travers series may have a more unique premise, his law-and-disorder platforms’ best licks always come in a close look at the hard side of the New Deep South, and of the people who try to make sense of living there:

Lillie and Quinn followed 78 until it turned into Lamar Avenue in south Memphis, running through all those warehouses and big-rig garages, cheap motels for truckers to sleep, and barbecue joints to grab a sandwich, or western-wear shops for some new cowboy boots. The road soon turned into a clustered section of beauty parlors and pawnshops, used-car dealerships, and storefront churches. The Stonewall Jackson Motel was a half mile off the I-240 loop, tired and haggard and having seen its best days when Ike had been president. There had been a pool at one point, but it had been filed in, with thick weeds growing in the center. The motel was one story and a deep U shape. Lots of transient cars with out-of-state license plates littered the parking lot, probably laborers cutting through town. The sign outside the small registration lobby boasted FREE HBO.

This is not the “true grit” of Charles Portis’ famous tale of revenge in the Old West; rather the mundane grit of disposability that truly incubates the evils of today, and informs the writers who try to warn us through tales of morality and mortality. Not that we listen.

Rod Davis is the author of PEN/Southwest award-winning Corina’s Way and of American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World. He taught a course in detective and spy fiction at UT-Austin.

Creole Belle, by James Lee Burke, published by Simon & Schuster (2012), is available here.
The Lost Ones, by Ace Atkins, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (2012) is available here.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Reviews: "Those Who Have Borne the Battle," by James Wright, in Plaza de Armas

The unsustainable parade

Every July 4 and November 11 we let the reality of what it means to be a powerful nation-state leak through the white noise of ideology and consumerism and we do our best to say thank you to our military, our veterans, our fallen. But as James Wright observes in his timely study, Those Who Have Borne the Battle, “These are not sustainable moments.” We go back to forgetting.

Wright’s goal, a balanced mix of the personal, historical and analytical, is to explore America’s deeply fractured attitude toward our troops and their mission. It is an uncomfortable journey. Popular and official sentiment waivers even on the most basic level — whether veterans (i.e. survivors) of national conflicts deserve more than patriotic lip-service once the shooting has stopped.
Wright traces the development of the nation’s love/ignore narrative from purposeful wars such as the Revolutionary and Civil and World War II, to those of shifting or undefined purpose, starting with perhaps the most brutal, the Korean War. Following that “forgotten” template to all that followed, Wright takes up the Vietnam War, which opened the country’s greatest civilian-military chasm, and then notes the re-emergent pattern with Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wright is scrupulous in concentrating on exactly what the title says — those who have borne the battles — rather than those who have sent them to do so. That is, us. But he doesn’t shy from the connection: “Wars may sometimes be necessary, even unavoidable, but for those who must decide necessity, it need always to be remembered that fighting in wars means dying in wars.”

On every battlefield, every ship, every flight crew, those who serve put the talk into action. Wright, himself a veteran, makes a good case that one of the almost inconceivable realities of combat is that those who are engaged in it — usually quickly and in chaos — are by training focused on achieving their mission, staying alive, and keeping their comrades alive. It is arguable that this incredible concentration of will makes all combat possible. For to stop and think about the biological physics of high velocity rounds and molten explosives would be utterly unnerving.

America is and has been defined by war, and yet so few have borne this burden over the years. Just under 1 percent of our population serves on active duty in today’s all-volunteer force, and fewer than 10 percent of us are veterans of any era. A long way from the colonial concept of “citizen-soldier.” It is this imbalance that perhaps explains the divide. Combatants come home seeing things differently; and are in turn seen that way themselves. Wright’s account joins those, starting with Homer, in witness that it has ever been thus.

Even after winning independence against very long odds, the officers of the Continental Army came close to revolt when the nascent Congress tried to stiff them on benefits. The comparatively large portion of the populace that fought in the Civil War allowed discharged veterans to press their cause more successfully than in smaller conflicts. But after World War I, veterans denied promised bonuses camped out in the nation’s capital, and were forcibly routed by soldiers under the command of the likes of George Patton and Douglas MacArthur.

That ugliness was not lost on post-World War II leaders, when some 16 million service members returned from the global fronts in need of jobs, housing and education. The original GI Bill, the most ambitious national social program ever, was all but foreordained despite fierce opposition among some politicians and many academic leaders. The post-9/11 GI Bill has expanded veterans programs to an entirely new level, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, despite flaws, is better- funded and more competent than ever. Yet veterans still suffer homelessness, high unemployment, difficult job and college transitions and health issues that often haunt to the grave. An average of 18 veterans a day commit suicide; among active duty troops the rate is one per day so far this year.

Vietnam famously tangled our feelings about our military with our feelings about war and national policy. In the ensuing debates in D.C. , the Pentagon and assorted think-tanks, “No more Vietnams” translated first to more caution and then to more deployments: nation-building; counterinsurgency; pre-emptive wars. Even when doing so morphed from a “quick” victory to a decade of boots on the ground.

The boots belong to mostly young men and women, some of whom can no longer wear boots. What next for them? At the end of Dispatches, Michael Herr declared that the Vietnam War grunts among whom he had been living and reporting were “my guns.” I think it’s more accurate to say they are our national essence. They are us. We just don’t know what to do about it.

Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America’s Wars and Those Who Fought Them by James Wright (Public Affairs, 2012) is available here.

Rod Davis served as an Army first lieutenant in South Korea during the Vietnam Era. A new novel,
South, America, is forthcoming.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Reviews: "Fall Line," by Joe Samuel Starnes, in Plaza de Armas

Washed in the blood: Starnes' 'Fall Line'

The relentless naturalism of Fall Line pushes out of an anger ultimately rooted in a source that, like Joe Samuel Starnes’ novel itself, is of another time; but also, and equally relentlessly, of our own: class hatred. Consider this train of thought from the protagonist, rural Georgia failure Elmer Blizzard, whose final day on earth, Dec. 1, 1955, is spent trying to alert people about to be inundated by a new dam northeast of Atlanta –and plotting his revenge against those who created it:
He finished the cigarette and got up and flipped over the Ernest Tubb record and started it playing and sat down in his armchair in the den. He lit another cigarette and listened to the twang and thud of the music, Ernest singing about mean women — There’s lots of mean women on almost any street — a fact Elmer knew to be true right here in Lymanville, but he wondered why Ernest didn’t have any songs about the legions of conniving sumbitches that roamed the Earth.
In Starnes’ account, echoes of the Old South reverberate in the New. It’s not surprising. No part of America so seamlessly and simultaneously inhabits its past, present and future with such tragedy and pathology. “The more things change” was invented in Dixie. Any Southern writer who doesn’t know that isn’t worth reading.

Elmer’s day takes him on winding backstory trips around the lowland roads along the Oogalusa River, soon to birth a lake that will market energy and recreation to the emerging cities. A WWII veteran whose career as a deputy was ruined by his affair with a prison farm woman, Elmer now ironically works for the utility company building the dam. He realizes he has no future: job prospects are bleak and everything he has ever known, owned, or cared about will be disappeared before breakfast.

Crisscrossing the bottomlands looking for stragglers, Elmer’s mood darkens by the hour. The bitterest stop is at his family’s abandoned farm, swindled away by speculators. He grudgingly helps some Coca-Cola employees lost in the rural trails near the river, tries perhaps in vain to convince a black family and a stubborn elderly widow that it’s time to go, and eventually kills a loutish pulpwooder in a brawl based on nothing more than undirected rage.

Mostly Elmer broods about his cousin, powerful and corrupt State Sen. Aubrey Terrell. Known as the “Guvnah,” Terrell is the major profiteer behind the lake’s development. Every memory and encounter with the Guvnah shapes Elmer’s deepening hatred for the wealthy and powerful for betraying their kin, the land, and the people. Lake Terrell, indeed.

As the day wanes, Elmer buys ammo, gathers his guns, aligns with his fate. When evening dedication ceremonies bring on fireworks and bigshots, Elmer drifts back down into the river’s edge, angrily popping off rounds until he sets fire to the still-dry remains of his hometown. Soon the fire is smothered, the town flooded and the lake begins to form in the dark.

In the pre-dawn hours, Elmer rescues the widow, though not her rabbit-eating dog, Percy, who, in Old South literary conceit, prowls the hills as Nature’s occasional narrator. Elmer cannot let go his hatred of the Guvnah and all he represents and stalks him down to a secret clearing on a hillside not yet reached by the rising waters, where he is in a drunken tryst with a high-school cheerleader.

Starnes imbues Fall Line with a lyrical authenticity and nuance that captures a truth of place in time  (I know — I went to high school in this part of Georgia). In the end, though, it is difficult to feel empathy or sorrow for any of the characters. The lake wipes away Elmer’s fading yeoman class, and righteous anger confronts his bourgeois enemy, but no one evinces any moral stature, and all are filled with soul poisons, notably racism. In naturalist fiction, Nature does not judge what it engenders. The sun rises. The sun sets. Things happen. What happened in Fall Line was that a dam was built, a way of life vanished, men fell in the forest and there was no sound, only fury.

What happened after 1955 in the South was a succession of inundations: Civil Rights, Vietnam, the New South, the Revanchist South. So much water, so little cleansing.

Fall Line, by Joe Samuel Starnes. NewSouth Books, 2011.

Rod Davis is the author of Corina’s Way, winner of the 2005 PEN/Southwest Award for Fiction.  A new novel, South, America, is forthcoming from NewSouth Books.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Reviews: "Dirty Rice," by Gerald Duff, in Plaza de Armas

Friday, 01 June 2012 02:24
Rod Davis

I was telling a friend she would like Dirty Rice: A Season in the Evangeline League, because although the putative subject is minor-league baseball, the roux that holds it together is the evocation of a rare, rural, half-forgotten Louisiana. In fact, Gerald Duff’s new novel is about something else altogether: the purity of artistic passion.

Strange claim about an odyssey rooted in the story of the Rayne Rice Birds, a Depression-era ball club traveling across Huey Long’s terrain of make-believe and make-do in broke-down buses full of players committed to a game that barely keeps them fed.
And yet they play anyway, from their nowhere hometown field to the comparatively brighter lights and more sinful sites of Alexandria, Lafayette and Baton Rouge. Their class D league is so far from the majors as to be virtually unknown except to entertainment-starved local fans and a small town sports reporter who writes up games like pulp fiction because in a Depression, reality won’t sell.

Who but a bayou Fellini would find sustenance, meaning, in such a world?

Ball players would.

Duff shows us how through the memory the most passionate artist in the tale, Gemar Batiste, a miscast A-list athlete who himself is not from Louisiana, but Deep East Texas. He would not describe himself as Texan, though, but rather as one of the People — a member of the River Otter Clan of the Coushatta tribe of the Alabama-Coushatta Nation. He learned and honed his skills as a pitcher and batter in the saw-mill leagues, but in his mind — a remarkable trove of history, myth, legend and hard-scrabble life — it all derives from a deeper knowledge: that what white men call baseball comes from a much older game played by the Aztecs.

Batiste’s recollection of that season in the Evangeline League is permeated by his spirituality, as well as by the travails of the team into which he has been recruited by a backwoods talent scout. We would know none of the story except for the detailed recordings of a hack writer “on special assignment for the Great American Pastime Foundation,” who obviously became caught up in the memory of a man in his 90s now living in a retirement home in Annette, Texas. The writer’s impatience at Batiste’s refusal to stick to a straight story line about the league’s nearly final season is of course the reader’s benefit, because, then as now, sport isn’t about stats.

As always, Duff (Blue Sabine, That’s All Right Mama: The Unauthorized Life of Elvis’s Twin, and others) has an ear for vernacular and an eye for detail. He gives his protagonist a dimension that shows him both in the social-cultural setting of racism and stereotypes of the era, but also as a young man on a quest to be the best, and determined never to be thought of as anything other than part of the People. Gemar’s one brawl comes when the son of one of the team owners called him “Jay Bird” at a local dance hall. For Batiste, and the People, a name is of fundamental importance, and he didn’t like being called something he wasn’t. Nor would he knuckle under during the playoffs to a promotional scheme to wear a war bonnet and chant out phony war cries.

He accepted the sports writer’s moniker, “Chief Batiste,” while ignoring it. He learned, in the course of that season, to ignore much of anything that wasn’t baseball. The more games the Rice Birds won, and the more he became a statewide celebrity as league MVP, the more he had to ignore. When the team owners, fully tied into the corruption of ‘30s-era Louisiana, began their season-ending move to throw games for the bookies, Batiste ignored their temptations and moved ever inward, ever closer to the spirituality of the game that sealed his soul in the first place.

When his closest teammate, Mike Gonzales, a shortstop recruited as a “Cuban” but who everyone knows is a “redbone” from Alabama, gives into the game-fixers, Batiste turns away without sympathy. Mike had sullied the sport. There can be no forgiveness.

Finally, Batiste stands on his own, literally, on the mound, against the decay of everything around him. Judgment is difficult to pass, since there are no jobs and no real future, and, as Mike says, you have to get what you can while you can. A normal person would understand that and perhaps even be tempted.

But Gemar Batiste has the pitches to set batters down in order inning after inning; and when needed, to swat a triple or RBI. He knows how every player on the field thinks. He knows why pitchers are neurotic, why shortstops are stubborn, why catchers can never stop believing they run everything, why outfielders drift aloof in their own world — and riffs on these insights are what make Duff’s novel a treat for all baseball fans.

An artist ultimately will believe no one else, trust no other judgment, abide by no other standards than those that prove the purity of the expression, and thus the beauty. One season was all Batiste got, and all he needed.

Dirty Rice: A Season in the Evangeline League, by Gerald Duff.
University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2012

Rod Davis is the author of Corina’s Way, winner of the 2005 PEN/Southwest Award for Fiction.  A new novel, South, America, is forthcoming from NewSouth Books.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Blog Change

Just a placeholder note. I'm converting the previous blog, "The Ochosi Chronicles," to a new page, "" in order to expand the scope of postings and information. Basically it will become my own website and I hope be easier to find under this name. I can't use "RodDavis" per se because it's already being used. If you go there, sorry, it ain't me.

I'll be redesigning the page soon as well and it will look more like the web pages of other authors.

Thanks and hope to see you here.