I originally reviewed Red Baker by Robert Ward on December 29th, 2006.
“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.”
In 1985 Robert Ward, Baltimore native and reporter for The Baltimore Sun, published Red Baker. It was met with critical acclaim and won the PEN West prize for Best Novel of 1985, but nobody bought it and it faded away into obscurity. Wards depiction of the blue collar Baltimoron prompted Hollywood to come to Charm City and lure him away from the paper and from writing further novels. He became a successful screenwriter for Hill Street Blues and other shows including Miami Vice. But in mystery circles everyone was talking about Red Baker and the name was freely given to any who would listen like a secret password. “Psst, have you read Red Baker”, or “Do you think Ward will write another novel?” Ward went on to a successful career as a screenwriter, a job that most, even the talented ones, do anonymously. But those who were in the know always waited and watched to see what Ward was going to do next and his career was closely followed. Robert Ward became two things, a writer’s writer and an unknown commodity to any outside of certain circles.
“I, Red Baker” is how the novel starts and those three words start off as an open invitation as we read the book quietly to ourselves. A subtle invitation to substitute Red’s “I” with our own. By the end Red will be all of us and his “I” will be universal.
Red, his best friend Dog and 60% of the work force are all laid off from Larmel Steel. This has happened for short periods before but this time is different. It looks as if the lay-off is going to be permanent. Heading to the unemployment office in the hopes of stemming the tide of bills Red is informed that he is “unskilled” labor and will draw less because of that classification. His wife of 19 years, Wanda, will go back to her waitressing job to make ends meet, while Red is forced to take menial tasks.
As their entire world is flipped upside down these steel workers, Viet Nam vets and night-school dropouts among them, whose jobs were a large part of their identities are forced to cope in a desperate struggle to merely survive when once they had been the epitome of the American dream. The great American truth is that our society is a meritocracy and with hard work will come certain rewards. While there is an element truth to this it has to be recognized that it is not an absolute and there is a dark side of the dream.
Red Baker starts off as a social novel, with broad criticisms of the government and big business. Red writ large as the proletariat hero trying to keep from being squashed by larger economical forces.
But as Red begins his decent into an alcohol and drug fueled madness that directly correlates to his inability to find meaningful work the novel moves from a broader perspective and makes Red more personal. It’s at this point that it really starts to gain a beating heart. His family and those immediately surrounding him are dealt with exclusively. His wife Wanda, whom Red sees as an angry bitter woman. But sifting through Red’s perspective it become increasingly clear that she is a devoted wife who will take any job to keep their family solvent and will become, as she always has been, the emotional bedrock that this family’s future will be built on. Money play an important role to be sure in keeping a family together but an emotional bond is as equally important. Ace, Red’s son, is good student with musical abilities that want to be fostered. Red and his sons’ relationship may get put through the paces more so then any other. What starts out as a tender father son relationship devolves into one based on fear: fear of the father, fear of the hand, fear of the unknown. Then there is Crystal, a dancer at the bar where the workers congregate. Red is involved with her and has been for awhile. Crystal, in her youthful exuberance, wants to escape the confines of Baltimore and make a better life for herself in Florida, where the weather is warmer and there are more opportunities. She also wants Red to go with her. Throughout most of the novel Crystal represents for Red an escape, a chance to take a deserved ride into the sunset. She becomes a walking example of “The grass is greener…”
The final section of the book can be read as a crime novel. In a final act of desperation Red and Dog get wrangled into pulling a job with a childhood friend. The amount of money is significant enough in their situations for them to act on the opportunity. But the job, as could almost be expected, goes awry.
“There never was a story with a happy ending in Baltimore, but this comes as close to cutting it as any I have heard.“
Red Baker is a dream protagonist. His character arc flows organically as he slips further into the hole ever reaching for something true and right that he can use as a handhold or a foothold to start the struggling climb out. He realizes, almost too late, as he is hanging off the cliff’s edge by his pinky finger that the light in the darkness was always there and somehow he had managed to over look them, his family. Perhaps that’s the point though, that more important then any fiscal reward are those who love you and who care for you when you are at your lowest. This is not only the greatest reward but the ultimate goal as well.