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

March 26, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

NEW YORK — 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.

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