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.