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.

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