Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A literary guide to Baltimore

Laura Lippman, who is most responsible for my mental map of Baltimore with her many novels set there, wrote Salon's literary guide for her semi-beloved city.

One title from a half-century ago:
William Manchester's City of Anger has the inevitable anachronisms of any 1953 novel that takes on race relations, but the title remains depressingly apt. Manchester, who worked for the Evening Sun (my former employer as well), begins with one of the best descriptions I've ever read of my hometown: "The city faced the bay. In the days of sailing vessels all the people had lived in a horseshoe of homes circling the downtown basin, and everyone could see the water, and the land behind was wild. Now the skyline blocked out the bay, and those who could had moved inland and built in the green corridor of the Valley. But the horseshoe remained, a vast arc of decaying houses running from sea to sea, walling the skyline in and the suburbs out."
Baltimore in the 1980s is represented by an unlikely trio--John Waters, Anne Tyler, and Robert Ward:

Waters, the well-known film director, isn't the figment of someone else's imagination, but he's quite the character and a terrific writer to boot. His memoir, Shock Value (1981), is a wonderful story about a self-confessed odd duck growing up in the suburbs, obsessed with the city's seamier side.... At one point, Waters counsels the powers-that-be to change the city's slogan to "Come to Baltimore and Be Shocked"--and the Chamber of Commerce actually complied in 2000, printing up thousands of yellow-and pink bumper stickers as a tribute to Waters. His essays, collected in Crackpot (1986), also have their share of Baltimore moments, most notably "Ladies and Gentlemen ... the Nicest Kids in Town," a completely sincere paean to a local dance show. That piece evolved into "Hairspray," the low-budget film, which became "Hairspray," the Broadway phenomenon, which is now "Hairspray," a motion picture so major that it can't even be filmed in Baltimore.

I know that Anne Tyler is, for most of America, the first name in Baltimore fiction, but I'm almost reluctant to include her here. Tyler, like Baker, transcends Baltimore, although she does the gentle lunacy of the WASPy North Side precincts very well, particularly in The Accidental Tourist (1985). Still, I've always maintained that Tyler isn't a Baltimore writer, but a great writer who happens to live in Baltimore. Charm City is not her primary subject, but her default setting.

As for Ward:
In [his] Red Baker (1985), ...the novel's recently laid-off, eponymous steelworker tells us: "There never was a story with a happy ending in Baltimore," yet opines later: "Even the worst of times aren't all that bad." But Red was conceived by Ward in the early 1980s. He probably couldn't envision a day when his company's real-life counterpart, Bethlehem Steel, would be bought by other companies, which would then cut off retirees' health benefits. Baltimore reveres its working-class past, but it doesn't have as much affection for the actual workers still among us. Thankfully, Red ultimately finds contentment -- not in Baltimore, but in a desert, the perfect diametric for a polluted mid-Atlantic city where the snow is so lumpy that Red compares it to grits. (Ward, who was nominated for the National Book Award for Red Baker, made a similar journey, heading west to write for television -- "Hill Street Blues," "Miami Vice" -- while keeping his hand in as a novelist.)
Lippman's heart is with the Baltimore of The Wire, the best show on television.
Madison Smartt Bell tilled the same territory for a novel, the nicely understated Ten Indians (1996), which examines the tyranny of good intentions. A white psychologist opens a martial arts studio in a poor black neighborhood, and it ain't "The Karate Kid." Bell has the courage to remind his readers that it's pretty damn hard to save anyone, yourself included.
There's more: read Lippman's essay here.

"Laura Lippman's books are possessed of a subtle understanding of emotional architecture that leaves me breathless," wrote novelist Marcus Sakey in this post.

In this post I praise Lippman for, among other virtues, praising Mildred Pierce.

Other items in Salon's literary guide series include:
A literary guide to Argentina
A literary guide to Afghanistan
A literary guide to Louisiana
A literary guide to Australia
A literary guide to Norway
A literary guide to Turkey
A literary guide to Japan
A literary guide to Martha's Vineyard
A literary guide to West Texas
A literary guide to Togo
A literary guide to Brooklyn
A literary guide to Miami

--Marshal Zeringue