Return of the Native Baltimore nostalgia runs deep for Ward in life and new book

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a lottery sort of day for Robert Ward. No -- make that a time in which he has not only busted the Lotto but also is scooping up chips by the handful at a poker table in Vegas.

He's on the phone in his hotel room. "Hey!" Mr. Ward calls out as he waves in a reporter from his hometown of Baltimore. "This is some day. I'm out promoting my new book, and it's getting good reviews. I just sold my next book today for a bundle of money, and we're starting shooting on my next TV pilot Saturday."

Robert Ward -- tall, lean, bursting with good-natured energy -- puts down the phone. Soon he will be burning up the wires between New York and Vancouver, talking to people associated with "Green Dolphin Beat," the crime show he is producing for the Fox Network.

"I'm being pulled every which way, what with the show and this book tour," he says half-wearily. "But hey -- who's complaining, right?"

Certainly not Bob Ward. His time in Hollywood, which began in 1985 following the production of his well-received novel "Red Baker," has included stints as a writer for "Hill Street Blues" and an executive producer of "Miami Vice." And after two decades of trying, he's managed to finish "The King of Cards," his newly published fourth novel.

He admits that a reading and book-signing at the Towson Borders Book Shop tonight "is something I'm really looking forward to -- a chance to go home and see some buddies."

Still, "I've been going through Stress City with all this stuff happening," Mr. Ward, 49, says amiably as he settles down for lunch. "Would they like the new book? Would people like the book I'm just publishing? Will the pilot get picked up?

And now, at least, it's all working. I don't feel relieved yet. I'm still crazy."

He's pleased, though, that early reviews of "The King of Cards" have been favorable. (The Washington Post reviewer called it "a touching and comic romp.") For this is a book that means a lot to Robert Ward.

"The King of Cards" is an affectionate homage to the bohemian, beatnik life in Baltimore in the mid-1960s, far different in tone from "Red Baker," which depicted the grim lives of unemployed steel workers in East Baltimore who saw their whole way of life disappearing.

But in "The King of Cards," the lead character, Tom Fallon, is an idealistic young student at a Towson college who falls in with a local approximation of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. They listen to jazz, ingest illegal substances, frolic uninhibitedly with various sexual partners, read poetry and generally serve no useful purpose.

Leading them all is Jeremy Raines, a free-thinking ne'er-do-well who lives for the ingenious hustle. He's got this great idea to provide photo ID cards for all the colleges in Maryland, hence the nickname "The King of Cards." Too bad he doesn't have the money or the staff to pull it off -- only the chutzpah. As Tom notes in their first meeting: "The man was mad I thought, part eccentric and part huckster, definitely not anyone for me to get involved with." Tom does, of course, setting off a whole series of improbable escapades.

" 'The King of Cards' is like a huge monkey off my back, because a lot of this stuff happened to me in reality in the 1960s," Mr. Ward says. "I knew the second it was over in my 20s that you could make a great novel out of it. But I didn't have either the art or the distance to do it, and it was so frustrating.

"But I would write it nonetheless. I wrote hundreds of pages. I wrote this book over and over again, for years. I wrote a version of it when I was about 30 -- about 150 pages when I was teaching at Hobart College in upstate New York. And, you know, it was [terrible] when it was done, because I had an attitude about it that wasn't mature, and I wasn't adult enough to write about these experiences. I was still going through my own belated adolescence."

It had been an adolescence marked by rebellion. Growing up in several neighborhoods in Baltimore -- Highlandtown, Northwood and Govans -- and attending college at Towson State, Bob Ward was restless, drawn to the arts and writing, but unsure what to do, and how.

"Bob had, shall I say, a less than splendid preparation for college, but he recognized his deficiencies and tried to make up for them," says Frank Guess, a retired professor of English at TSU who taught Mr. Ward in his American literature class.

"In that respect, he was in another league from most students today, who respect neither knowledge or those who try to convey it. They are blank faces; he was, on the contrary, one of those animated presences that make the saving difference between teaching and drudgery."

Finally, about three years ago, Mr. Ward started working again on "The King of Cards." He was then a successful TV writer, having contributed about 20 screenplays to "Hill Street Blues" and landing a two-year deal with Universal to develop pilot shows.

There was the year he produced "Miami Vice," which he calls "a huge responsibility. You're coming up with all these stories, and then you're dealing with the set in Miami, and they're calling every 10 minutes, and at the same time you're working on stories for shows four, five, six down the line. It's like loony. And I loved it."

But still there was his novel. He couldn't give it up, which perplexed some California friends.

"The thing about L.A.," Mr. Ward goes on, "is that everybody talks about the cars and the wealth, but what really strikes me is the attitude that if you can't reach 800 million people, it's not worth your time. That's the thing I hate and resent most about the place. Like this novel: Some people out there might say, 'Why do you do that? You make more money doing TV, and everybody watches that.' . . . Well, I resent that, because there's no art like writing a novel, as far as I'm concerned. It's a personal vision of one person, and TV could never be that."

So he got out "The King of Cards" and gave it another shot, this time restructuring the novel to have Tom, the narrator, return to Baltimore as a successful middle-aged writer. What emerged was a sweet and affectionate look at youth -- perhaps misspent, but also filled with passion and defiance of the norm.

"That's what I loved most about that time," Mr. Ward says with a grin. "The whole point of it was to find some other way of being, that you wouldn't be defined by, say, a career. And you know what? I still kind of believe that."

He says the character of Jeremy was modeled after a real-life friend named Jesse, "a wonderful guy, and it's very seldom as a writer that you get a character that's presented to you in real life so perfectly for fiction. He was my buddy at Towson, and was probably the most fun guy in the world to be around. He was always like" -- Mr. Ward affects a W.C. Fields-like tone -- " 'My boy, don't worry. We're going to get this deal going. We're going to have this great party, with all these nurses from Sheppard Pratt,' and blah blah blah."

Much of the rest of the book is autobiographical as well. Tom, the writer-to-be who clashes frequently with his embittered father, is drawn from Mr. Ward's own experiences. Mr. Ward really did live in a free-wheeling group house, as did Tom. And there really was a scheme to market Ident-Cards to state colleges, with similarly ridiculous results.

Mr. Ward recalls with relish going with a friend up to the Camden, N.J., campus of Rutgers University to shoot ID pictures of the freshman class. "We shot the entire class without noticing that we had failed to put any film in the camera," he says, slapping the table with glee. "This being the 1960s, we were under the influence of all kinds of mind-altering substances."

And there's Baltimore, always Baltimore, front and center in "The King of Cards."

"Baltimore is such a complex place, and that's what I'm fascinated by," Mr. Ward says.

"For instance, you could say that Baltimore is the most provincial place on Earth -- you leave your neighborhood and people hate you. And that's true. But you can also say that in that provincial neighborhood, you can be as eccentric as you want to be, and nobody will think anything of it.

"Still, I remember I lived on Winston Road in Govans, and we

moved to Northwood, just across the Alameda, to a house on the same road. Basically, I lived by bicycle about four minutes away from my old neighborhood. But when I came back, none of my friends would talk to me -- and these were my good friends: 'Oh, you moved over there with the pinheads in Northwood.' But I kind of like that in a way. It was suffocating, but it was also really tight-knit.

"[H. L.] Mencken always talked about Baltimoreans being your friends for life. I'm still tight with my friends in Baltimore."

BOOK-SIGNING

What: Reading and book-signing by Robert Ward.

Where: Borders Book Shop, 415 York Road, Towson.

When: 7 tonight.

% Call: (410) 823-4454.

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