by Robert Ward
“…Ward’s prose is direct and muscular, and his story is both painful and enthralling.”
When Red Baker, a Larnel steel worker in Baltimore, Maryland, gets laid off from his job he goes crazy: boozing, attempted philandering, running away from his future. Filled with unforgettable characters from Red’s angry but loyal wife, Wanda; his basketball-star son, Ace; his lifelong friend Dog, a casualty of the layoff; and Crystal, the go-go dancer at Lily’s bar who embodies Red’s fantasies of escape. Red Baker is a classic American novel about a man with no identity who tries to replace the one he’s lost.
“The acclaimed TV series The Wire may have recently inclined the public’s imagination toward the mean streets of Baltimore, but back in 1985, Ward wrote a stunning novel that has loomed large in the imaginations of writers exploring Charm City (or “Balmere”) ever since. It’s 1983, Red Baker is 39, and his employer, Larmel Steel, has just laid off 60 percent of its workers—including him and his best friend, Dog. The mill seems likely to close for good. Baker and his coworkers, held together by steady paychecks and a sense of purpose, are unmoored and unmanned. As they stand in line for nonexistent jobs, it’s stunning, if unsurprising, how quickly they begin to crumble. Drinking heavily, flying on speed, Baker fantasizes about fleeing to Florida with his stripper girlfriend, Crystal; even though he knows he’s alienating his wife and teenage son, he can’t help himself. Inexorably, his desperation leads to a tragic act of crime. But calling Red Baker a crime novel is like saying Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes is a book about football. Ward’s genius is that he has created a character who makes all the wrong choices and knows it, yet readers will identify with him so closely that they’ll be hard-pressed to say they would have done anything differently. Ward’s prose is direct and muscular, and his story is both painful and enthralling. Now, 25 years later, the tough, male world of the novel may seem as antiquated as that depicted in Martin Scorsese’s film Mean Streets, but this book remains urgently relevant. Factories still close, and men and women with “nontransferrable skills” still search for new employment, for meaning, and for a sense of self.”
—Booklist (starred review)