The Ultimate Outsider
Rummelhart, Alexander. The Ultimate Outsider, Seattle, WA: Skyd Press, 2016. 247 pp. ISBN. 9780996310796 $13.99 (PB)
DESCRIPTION: What’s inside?
The Ultimate Outsider by Alexander Rummelhart is one of the first YA novels that has its main character’s story arc propelled almost entirely by the sport of Ultimate. The novel follows Jimmy Anderson as he makes his way through his junior year at Geneva Grove High School. His life takes an unexpected turn when he has an awkward, slightly humorous encounter with Eliza, a quick-witted and skilled Ultimate player, who invites Jimmy to “come try out for [her] team…on a sport that will be perfect for [him]” (Rummelhart, 21). He soon meets the speedy and quirky co-captain, Lee, a pudgy handler who always finds his target named Sphere, and the rest of the ragtag group of transplant athletes that make up the Pink TrollZ. After one afternoon of pick-up, Jimmy is hooked and finds himself in a bit of a pickle, stuck between exploring his interest in a new sport that brings with it new friends and his other responsibilities and expectations.
After a small amount of digging around the internet, you can find that Rummelhart is a long time ultimate player, contributor for both Skyd Magazine and UltiWorld, and has the Ultimate nickname “UBER.” (“Alex Rummelhart”, “Past Articles from Alex Rummelhart”). I am not sure how he got the name UBER, but I imagine that like many Ultimate nicknames it has an interesting or at least mildly amusing story. I didn’t know it while reading The Ultimate Outsider, but I’ve actually read a few of his articles when they’ve popped up in my social media newsfeed. One of the earlier posts I remember reading was “Ultimate Fans“ published on Skyd Magazine’s website on 21 May 2014. Rummelhart also has a series that I’ve perused while writing this post called “Tuesday Tips.” A recent one was titled, “Tuesday Tips: How to Be a Cutter and A Handler” published on the Ultiworld website on 5 Dec. 2017.
DISCUSSION: How is this relevant to the sport of Ultimate?
This novel is all Ultimate. The terminology, team dynamics, levels of play, misperceptions, fun, and community are all interwoven within the book. Having started my Ultimate career in high school at Northfield Mount Hermon playing for (then) Flaked Tuna, I am transported back to that time. The story’s hodge-podge melding of skills, talents, personalities, and athletic backgrounds that make up an Ultimate team warmly reminded me of my own high school experience. Jimmy and his team mates would watch ultimate videos, read articles about the sport, get together between classes to throw, and discuss training drills and plays. Watching his infectious obsession grow was like reliving my high school days all over again. The unique terminology of the sport (eg. scoober, hammer, cup, dump-n-swing) is used and explained, helping to normalize it into the reader’s vernacular without needing to have a dictionary nearby. The novel also presents the welcoming nature of an ultimate community. I feel that Rummelhart has created an authentic portrayal of many aspects of the sport within this work of fiction.
I also was happy to see the inclusion of some gender diversity amongst the main characters of the book. Though there is a budding romance between Jimmy and co-captain Eliza, she isn’t just a “love interest,” but a serious athlete to contend with on the field. Her character is also instrumental in getting Jimmy to do some self reflection and take accountability for making his own decisions (Rummelhart, 181). If Eliza was only one-dimensional (a love interest) or if Rummelhart had created the Pink TrollZ to be a “boys only” open team, leaving out any quality female characters in this story it would be a disservice to the reality of our sport. It was a responsible decision to show what is part of every level of the sport: strong, amazing female athletes.
I don’t want this review to be focused on gender-equity because I don’t feel that this was a narrow focus of the book. However, currently there is a lot of discussion around how the sport is being marketed to those outside the Ultimate community. Is there equal exposure for Open, Mixed, and Women’s divisions on ESPN? Should the AUDL consider restructuring to a mixed format to really showcase a core value of our sport and Ultimate community? Do we sacrifice part of what makes our sport great, mixed-gender teams, to try to attract sponsors or exposure? This book does a small part to show that Ultimate isn’t a male sport. Maybe I’m over-selling the character of Eliza, but I like that she is sharing the spot-light.
CRITICAL EVALUATION: Any complaints, critiques, specific praise?
The writing is good. The dialog is mostly believable. And the story moves quickly. So, no major complaints about the writing mechanics. However, my critique is a little clouded by the nostalgia I felt while reading it. Others may be a lot harsher on the author.
I don’t fully identify with the main character’s need to hide his love for the sport from his family because I was always excited about telling anyone who would listen about my sport; however, it does work as a plot element to create conflict (present in most YA literature) and has relevance with the historic and current climate of legitimizing the sport at the high school level (for example Vermont’s historic vote). The reasoning for Jimmy’s conflict and continued deception is developed realistically in multiple places. When he first thinks about telling his father about his interest in pursuing Ultimate over track, Jimmy reflects, “Knowing that if he told the truth, he would get a lecture on the importance of not quitting something he had committed to…” (Rummelhart, 48). Or when he was later thinking about partially lying to his mother, “he didn’t want to face her at the moment, not when he was hiding something” (Rummelhart, 51). And lastly, the negative perception that some of those outside of Ultimate have for the sport is manifested through Jimmy’s track coach, when he says, ” ‘That silly hobby is getting in the way of your training. You’ve been missing practice to hang out with those hippies’ ” (Rummelhart, 98). These all give merit to Jimmy’s internal conflict.
I do have a few small hangups, though. There are some character stereotypes (A rich, evil kid as the main antagonist; an Asian father with broken English and a giant camera). and the story-line is a little over-the-top at moments (but it is a YA novel), but these are minor. Ultimately, though, I burned through this 247 page book over the course of a few days. It is an “easy read” and has some great themes about community, friendship and finding one’s place, which transcends a strictly Ultimate-specific audience. I’ve read a fair amount of YA literature as a former Middle / High School Librarian, and I would definitely put this book next to a lot of titles I would recommend to YA readers because of its core themes (and due to my love of the sport… again a little biased).
READERS ADVISORY: Keep reading!
If you’d like to learn more about the author, check out this interview with Alexander Rummelhart done by Skyd Magazine.
If YA isn’t quite your type of reading, consider reading a non-fiction, biographical account of Ultimate, like the essay entitled, “Ultimate Glory: A Frisbee Memoir” from David Gassner’s book, Sick of Nature. Gassner also recently released a stand alone book with a similar title, Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession, and My Wild Youth, but I haven’t read it yet so I can’t say more than it exists. Both books contain adult themes. Or if you are looking for some additional laughs, you might read, Ultimate: The Greatest Sport Ever Invented by Man by Pasquale Anthony Leonardo.
As a final thought, this is an encouraging example of YA fiction produced with Ultimate being part of the story, and I hope to see more.
Thank you for reading, and please comment below!