Back on the old blog, I started a series on books that have gone "Missing in Action" (i.e., out of print). The series only amounted to one book (Robert Ward's Red Baker), but I hope to write about some more one of these days. In the meantime, I didn't want that essay to get lost -- especially since word is surfacing that Red Baker might be returning to print soon -- so I'm reprinting it here.
I first discovered Red Baker when I met the book's author, Robert Ward, at the Bouchercon mystery convention in Las Vegas a couple of years back. Bob and I became fast friends and spent many hours together during the conference exploring the possibilities inherent in distilled spirits.
From the beginning, it was obvious that Bob was a guy who knew a lot of about writing and loved books with a passion. I also quickly discovered that, although his work was unknown to me, he had one helluva reputation among other writers. Every time we ran into someone, invariably they would get excited when they found out who Bob was and tell him how much they enjoyed Red Baker.
Clearly Red Baker was something I had to read, so as soon as I got back home I set out to get a copy. The book, unfortunately, was out of print, and thus was not immediately available. Fortunately, I was able to find a copy in a local used bookstore. (You can also find it for sale used on the internet.) I gladly laid out a couple of books and took Red Baker home, eager to see if it could possibly live up to its advanced billing.
Needless to say, it did. (Why else would I be writing about it?) From the beginning, I was enthralled. There are some books that let you know right away that they were written by a master craftsman who knows his trade, and that you will be in good hands for the duration. Such was the case with Red Baker.
The story is a powerful one, about a blue collar man (Red Baker) whose life falls apart after he loses his job at a Baltimore steel mill. In a broad sense, Red Baker is a crime novel, as Red eventually crosses over to the wrong side of the law out of hopelessness and desperation. More than that, though, it is the story of the American working class and the lives of "quiet desperation" that so many people live. As such, it is a rare book, as the working class seldom figures into most American novels, and it is all the more powerful because of it.
As the novel opens, Red is laid off at the plant along with 60% of the workforce. Like any good citizen, he dutifully reports to the unemployment office where he is told to stand in the line for unskilled laborers. "Now wait a minute, Miss," he tells her. "Maybe you don't understand just what it is [I do]. I turn bars of steel that are hotter than hell. I don't do it right, the steel jumps the track and somebody ends up walking on stumps for the rest of their life. There's plenty of skill in that, you better believe it."
His pleas fall on deaf ears, though, and Red is consigned to wait with the "dead-eyed, bent-backed guys" who have no prospects and little chance of finding work. His life begins a downward spiral in which he gradually loses his wife, his son, his house, and eventually even his sanity. Red turns to heavy-drinking and drugs, and later to crime, but nothing helps ease the pain of getting up each morning with nowhere to go and nothing to do, all of which leaves him feeling less than a man.
Red wonders "how it is a man knows he believes certain things, but he slips a little here and slips a little there, and eventually he looks the same but he's not even a man at all. He's just a liar, and that mean's he's nothing." He finally lowers himself (as he sees it) to take a position as a parking lot attendant, but he can't even make that work, leading to the ultimate humiliation of being fired from a job he considered beneath him in the first place.
Red Baker is something of a literary conceit, an uneducated man without much introspection who is nevertheless capable of offering articulate and poignant insights into life, as when he says "I had believed that if you worked hard and kept yourself and your family together, it was going to pay off. And worse, I had believed that it was not only going to pay off in this world but in the next one, too. That was the greatest laugh of all."
Always, though, the language is honest and direct, and the sentiment is never maudlin or nostalgic. This is life as its rawest and most human. Red Baker (both the character and the novel) resonates precisely because of that sincerity. The author never goes for the cheap trick, never betrays the story in an effort to make his protagonist more likable or the story more cheerful.
Robert Ward is one of those rare writing animals who is both a talented screenwriter (Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice) and a gifted novelist as well. He uses both of those skills to good effect in Red Baker, creating a plot that is fast-moving, evocative and compelling, and telling it with prose that is raw, authentic and piercingly beautiful.
When it was first published back in 1985, Red Baker got great reviews, from Michiko Kakutani, Jonathan Yardley, Christopher Hitchens, Time Magazine, and others, along with notices from the likes of James Crumley and Richard Price. It went on to win the PEN West Award for Best Novel.
Despite all of that, Red Baker is now out-of-print and that's a damn shame. I'm hopeful that some publisher will one day rectify this mistake. In the meantime, the next time you're in a used bookstore, check under "W" and see if they've got a copy. You won't be disappointed.
Robert Ward's newest novel, Four Kinds of Rain, will be published this fall by St. Martin's Press. His story "Chemistry" appeared last year in Akashic's The Cocaine Chronicles (edited by Jervey Tervalon and Gary Phillips ) and another story of his will appear in Baltimore Noir (edited by Laura Lippman), out this May from Akashic.