THE CRAWLSPACE CONSPIRACY. By Thomas Keech. Baskerville Publishers. 328 pages. $22. WHAT! ANOTHER lawyer who thinks he can write fiction? Yes, but Thomas Keech, a Baltimorean and an assistant Maryland attorney general, can really do it. What's more, he doesn't write formula junk like murder mysteries. His first novel, "The Crawlspace Conspiracy," is satire, one of the most difficult literary forms to master. What's more, it's satire about politics and bureaucracy in the Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin, a metropolis once called the Largest Unknown City in America, the Monumental City, where else but Baltimore, of which little satire has every been written and even less that's any good.
Mr. Keech's novel includes two accomplishments that are alone worth the price of admission. One of them is Chapter 3, "Mallory's Function," an introduction to a veteran Baltimore bureaucrat in the Department of Public Welfare:
"Mallory showed up every day promptly at 8:30. He always returned from lunch on time. He did not take excessively long breaks. He was well versed in the exact extent of the duties a state employee owed his supervisor, and the exact duties a supervisor owed a state employee. In fact, he wrote numerous articulate memos on these subjects. He had years of experience in state government. . . . But he had not yet done any work. Six successive supervisors had failed to get any assignments, or any rational explanations, or even any reaction out of him -- other than his vitriolic memos . . . and his contemptuous little smile . . . steadfastly determined to be of absolutely no help to anyone."
Mallory's character makes the novel absolutely hilarious in places. Preposterous as he may seem, though, he is, believe me, an unexaggerated portrait of a common type of bureaucrat your humble reviewer observed many times during 15 years of hard time in the federal civil service. Mr. Keech served 13 years as a state bureaucrat -- as well as seven years with the Legal Aid Bureau and three years as a lobbyist in Annapolis. He knows a Mallory when he sees one, and he has produced one in this story who is as comic, and as awful, as some of Dickens' clowns.
Mr. Keech's other literary gem in "The Crawlspace Conspiracy" may strike Maryland readers as funnier and more awful than Mallory. He is a famous mayor of Baltimore, noted as a faithful friend of builders and bankers and brokers who want to surround Baltimore's harbor with high-rises and upscale shops. He is a feared tyrant who wants his every whimsical order obeyed right now or you're fired, a loud-mouthed fool who won't tolerate criticism and hates the news media, a thin-skinned egomaniac who has his name painted on every park bench and trash basket in the city. His name in the novel is Crosley T. Pettibone, but guess which Baltimore mayor -- who later became governor -- the character is based on? The portrait is a little broader than the Mallory character. Pettibone's uncontrolled, childish muttering of nasty little rhymes may be a little too childish to believe -- although, on second thought, I take that back: the mayor/governor who inspired it can be pretty damned childish. He deserves the spanking.
The plot involves the knavish denial of government medical assistance to poor people who have crawl spaces under their homes, making them too affluent to be eligible. Other characters include a homeless day laborer who inherits an old rowhouse that blocks construction of a high-rise, a socially conscious nun, a worldly state senator and various lawyers and bureaucrats, most of them shown warts and all.
Mr. Keech has previously written short stories that won prizes, and my only objection to his novel -- a minor one -- is that it is a shade too long. He is a gifted satirist, in my opinion, and I hope he keeps it up. I'd like to see him do a job on urban renewal next.
John Goodspeed writes from the Eastern Shore.