Jun 9, 2011

Stuart Dybek's "Death of the Right Fielder": Fiction as Rich as Poetry

Pepper-Pots and Gum-Poppers: Something Will Happen Any Second Now
Meeting my son for a couple of Reds-Cubs games in Cincinnati reminded me of “Death of the Right Fielder,” a Stuart Dybek story in his second book of fiction, The Coast of Chicago (1990).  Last I heard, Dybek was living in Kalamazoo, Michigan but was a native and affectionate Chicagoan, which adds to the whole business of my mental associations, though Cubs fans are briefly disparaged in the story). 

For those who have forgotten or have never known childhood baseball, the worst player was always put in right field. Most batters were right-handed and usually hit to shortstop, center or left. So it was a rare and dreaded occasion when the right fielder had to do anything beyond remembering to come in at the end of his team’s half-inning in the field. (By the way, this changes dramatically as the talent levels in baseball rise—for example, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline, and Roberto Clemente were right fielders).

What right fielder?
In a story that might be labeled magical realism, Dybek, in grimly comic yet probingly philosophical ways, extends the premise of the right fielder’s loneliness and irrelevance. His nameless player is so forgotten that no one notices he has dropped dead at his position. After all, it “was a long walk” to the outfield, and “he always played deep.”  But his mates get curious after “too many balls went out and never came back.” So “we went out to check. . . . Finally we saw him . . . resembling the towel we sometimes threw down for second base.”  (35)

From that bizarre beginning, Dybek weaves a curious tale—actually, a reflection more than a tale—which, in a mere four pages, paints a picture of an individual life span in the late twentieth century. I've always thought Alan Sillitoe’s title Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner promised such a portrait, but for me that novel never delivered it as well as Dybek’s story does:  “The infield is for wisecrackers, pepper-pots, gum-poppers; the outfield is for loners, onlookers, brooders who would rather study clover and swat gnats than holler. People could pretty much be divided between infielders and outfielders.” (35)

Nobody knows what’s killed the right fielder, but theories abound, from heart attack, to sniper, to gangs and random gunfire. In exploring the theories, Dybek offers a couple of gems: “Young deaths are never natural; they’re all violent.” (36)   Nor could it have been leukemia:  "He wasn’t a talented enough athlete for that. He’d have been playing center, not right, if leukemia was going to get him." (36)

Major League Swing

His mates create a shallow grave right there in the outfield and try to smooth it over “so that the next right fielder, whoever he’d be, wouldn’t trip.” (37)   But an elegant, trouble-free grave is not that simple: “. . .  we couldn’t totally disguise it. A fresh grave is stubborn.” (38) And maybe that’s a good thing:  "Perhaps we didn’t want to eradicate it completely—a part of us was resting there. Perhaps we wanted the new right fielder, whoever he’d be, to notice and wonder about who played there before him, realizing he was now the only link between past and future that mattered." (38)
The Catch, The Fall, The Blur

A good while ago, I met Stuart Dybek a couple of times, and I liked him. It seems everyone does. As I’ve said about some other writers, he came across as a perfectly regular guy, not some staggering, swaggering, histrionic exhibitionist (was that redundant? sorry).

But I think and hope that my admiration for “Death of the Right Fielder” goes far beyond knowing the author or feeling casually connected to baseball. The story’s inventiveness, economy, and philosophical depth are intensified by its modesty and its brevity. It refuses to take itself too seriously, though its issues are grave. It is not at all showy, yet it deserves multiple readings, for it is full of gems. And like its author, it’s for regular folks; it gives them their due, grants them the sadness of their mortality, while refusing, for even one minute, to wallow in self-pity or its opposite, self-aggrandizement.



Pasadena Adjacent said...

Thats the position they always assigned me. Now I feel bad. Thanks a lot. I'm going to go eat your fish.

Rune Eide said...

I must admit that all my knowledge about baseball comes from reading Peanuts in my younger days :-)

I would have been the proverbial Right Fielder ...

Anonymous said...

What a brilliant concept, one that takes us all and immediately back to childhood. The glamour-positions of pitcher and shortstop, with third baseman next in line. The best hitters took center and left, which makes sense. Like death, one must bat alone, so it requires an introvert.

Thanks for this! Loved it.

Banjo52 said...

PA and RuneE, a lot of good people have played right field and lived to tell about it (or be quiet about it?).

PA, Please don't scare the fish.

AH, good! For a long time, I've thought that boxers, along with pitchers and batters, know what it means to struggle naked and alone before lots of witnesses. You could argue tennis, maybe even golf, but they lose something in translation for me.

I probably played right field in first year of Little League--and later, other outfield positions. It's mighty quiet out there.

Asking a 9-year-old to pay attention (AND be a pepper-pot??!!!) for 6 or more innings is just delusional. And maybe sadistic.

Birdman said...

If he's like most right fielders... probably killed himself. hahaha

Brenda's Arizona said...

Just getting here, as you all are probably ready to go on. I think I am the right fielder here, showing up late, dying as you all walk on.

Banjomyn, thanks for the intro to this writer and story. I must look for it now. Love your photos - great shots capturing the motion!
RuneE's comment about Peanuts - why didn't Lucy get assigned to right field? Or did she? Probably put Pig Pen out there.

Dybek sounds like a nice guy. It might be fun to go to a game with him, ya know?
Friday we have tickets to a Dback game - innerleague. Vs. White Sox, the other Chicago team. I'll be watching the center fielder with a new insight, willing him to run, not to die.

Thanks, Banjomyn, for the great post!

Banjo52 said...

Birdman! Shame on you.

Brenda, Thanks. May the spirit of Dybek carry the outfielders, his Sox, your Dbacks.

I bet Coast of Chicago is still in print. Of course he probably has others by now, and I haven't kept up.

Kitty said...

I'm not sure whether I'd qualify for outfield or infield. What personality would the pitcher have? Probably someone very exacting and works well under pressure?

I think I'd be a catcher. The number 2 guy. Though I'd probably harbor a jealous regard for the number 1 guy. lol.

Banjo52 said...

Kitty, thanks! That's interesting, fun wondering about the two principals. I think of pitchers as quarterbacks--the most complex, visible, dangerous job in terms of public humiliation or triumph. Gary Cooper in the dusty main street of the western town.

Catcher? They take a beating back there, Kitty! Maybe that's you out there wandering around the Big Apple, bump after bump, one foul tip after another?

But of course, with #1 or #2, you'd never get bored. But only a really dumb infielder could afford to be bored. :)

Kenny A. Chaffin said...

I love this story. I just re-read it for the umpteenth time and it gets better ever time, just like a high fly ball that lands perfectly in the outfielders mitt!

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