RED BAKER by Robert Ward


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It's certainly possible to get inside the heads of working-class people without lapsing into ""prole fiction"" formulas: think, in very recent years, of Ernest Hebert's New Hampshire novels or Bill Griffith's Time for Frankie Coolin. Here, however, though Ward (Shedding Skin, Cattle Annie and Little Britches) tries hard to dramatize the crisis of a Baltimore steelworker shattered by the 1983 recession and midlife blues, he falls back again and again--in both substance and style--on hollow clich‚s. Red Baker, 39, has just been laid off from his job as a ""rougher"" at Larmel Steel. He's humiliated by his treatment at the unemployment office; he's treated sadistically when he goes looking for another job; he's angry about having to do ""nigger work""--parking cars, janitoring. So he turns in despair to pills from a local Dr. Feelgood. (""Shame moved up and downs my arms, giving me the old electric tattoo."") He takes a little comfort from his smart/athletic son Ace, from his stripper/girlfriend Crystal, from fantasies--about driving off ""to the land where dreams didn't die"" or heading ""down the highway until we got to the land where the sun never quit."" But he can't seem to dredge up any love for his solid, patient wife Wanda. And when things hit rock-bottom (Wanda finally walks out, an unemployed buddy commits suicide), Red lets himself get talked into a robbery caper--which results in the death of best buddy Dog. . . followed by a totally unearned semi-upbeat fadeout. Throughout, Red's narration keeps trying on each of the standard blue-collar styles--gee-whiz primitive (""It was the damndest thing, and I am ashamed to tell you these feelings""), folksy-poetic, run-on sentences (for sex scenes)--without ever finding a convincing voice. The dialogue--except for some well-captured tavern chatter--is stagey yet dreary. And the portrait of Red is woefully two-dimensional, with unexplored problem-areas that have nothing to do with the traumas of sudden unemployment. Weak as fiction, then, with a view of blue-collar life that manages to be both sentimental and patronizing--and far less effective than journalism in evoking a socio-economic milieu.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1985
Publisher: Doubleday