by Gerald Duff, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2012; 306 pages; $20
It’s early in Gerald Duff’s new novel that Velma Doucette tells a new tenant at her rooming house about a dish called dirty rice: “You got to get used to it, if you’re going to spend anytime in this part of Louisiana. It’s made up of a lot of different kinds of meat parts and whatever else comes to hand. It can be real spicy, and when you first look at it, you think it’s something that might be dangerous to eat too much of. But it smells and tastes real good. You’ll have the chance to eat a lot of it here.”
Mrs. Doucette might just as well be talking about the Rayne Rice Birds, a minor league baseball team in the Evangeline League that has, well, sort of recruited Gemar Batiste — and his red oak bat. It is 1935 and the Great Depression. And as Gemar learns in this remarkable new novel from one of the South’s true talents, Mrs. Doucette might just be talking about life as well.
Gemar is an honorable innocent (a sort of Native American Horatio Alger) who steps off an Alabama-Coushatta reservation in Texas with big dreams. Perhaps the biggest is his ingenuous notion of the good old American Dream: lead a good, honorable existence to succeed against all odds. But as Gemar labors not to commit “the worst sin a baseball club can commit,” he discovers sin is relative. His season with the Rice Birds will teach him a thing or two about the baseball diamond and a thing or two about life.
Success around a Rice Birds baseball diamond is relative, too, and is fraught with unexpected detours. There’s Tommy Grenier, self-serving sports reporter whose coverage of Gemar in the local paper reflects “the way white folks think about Indians.” There are corrupt owners like Tony Guidry and Sal Florio, who use money to control the game: “You can’t drop a nickel in a slot nowhere around here that Sal Florio don’t get four cents of it.” There’s Mike Gonzales, Gemar’s roommate, who isn’t exactly who he insists he is on or off that diamond. And there’s Teeny Doucette, the landlady’s comely daughter, who “knew how to smile.”
All of this is remembered in the voice of Gemar Batiste during the Evangeline League season that becomes his rite of passage. That voice recalls adventures — there’s a cockfight that is a harrowing metaphor for Gemar’s season — punctuated with accounts of the games of the season and the camaraderie of working as a team. (“I know what stories a man wants to hear. I know what satisfies him.”) Gemar tries to hold to his belief that baseball is pretty straightforward. He also learns that winning isn’t always about proving which team is best.
It is a complicated journey Gerald Duff sends Gemar Batiste on; yet it is a journey not so different from those taken by characters in “Fire Ants,” his haunting collection of short stories, or the journey he describes himself taking in “Home Truths,” his recent memoir. In a voice worthy of the best in Southern fiction, Duff makes “Dirty Rice” an exhilarating and wry celebration of the American baseball mythos and an equally fascinating riff on modern sports: “It’s all show business.”
But there’s Gemar Batiste between us and a worldview like that. Thanks to Gerald Duff, there’s Gemar Batiste and the belief that — unlike the tempting dirty rice that “smells and tastes real good” — success doesn’t have to be about the money. It can be about honoring the game you’re in.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.