Political ploys fill the plot of local lawyer's first novel

March 09, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

For four years, attorney Thomas W. Keech has been trying to capture the spirit of Baltimore politicians and bureaucrats as they cut their deals while proclaiming the purest motives of public service.

Persistence and endless rewrites have finally paid off for the 48-year-old assistant attorney general, who can claim the title "published novelist" as of April.

"The Crawlspace Conspiracy," his tale of greed, venality, hypocrisy, compassion and humor -- in other words, politics as usual -- has put him among the ranks of lawyer-authors who include nationally known writers John Grisham and Scott Turow and locally, A. Gallatin Warfield, who has published two novels.

"I was trying to capture a certain style of government. Government is not as corrupt as people might think, but it is incredibly distorted by ego and by greed for power," Mr. Keech says. "I'm not one who hates politicians. I admire them -- they've got a really tough job."

Night after night, after his children went to bed, Mr. Keech retreated to the basement "crawl space" of his Catonsville home to write, first in longhand and later on a computer, creating characters and finding places for them in the story.

"I used Post-it notes in five colors to keep track of what I was doing and to bring the fragmented story lines together," Mr. Keech recalls.

His novel contains the usual caveats about all characters being entirely fictional, but Baltimoreans will find a few that seem familiar.

There's Crosley T. Pettibone, the mayor of Baltimore, whose name is plastered on every project, a man petty and vindictive to allies and foes alike, a man determined to ram through a $300 million condominium project in Fells Point for developer friends at any cost and who, when annoyed, sang dirty little ditties to himself.

There's also a silver-haired, silver-tongued state senator, improbably named Slip Slidell. He cons Sister Elena, a naive control freak who runs a soup kitchen, into a devil's pact through which Slip means to thwart Mayor Pettibone's ambitions.

The "conspiracy" involves bureaucrats who block applicants for medical assistance by assigning to their homes a "crawl space," even if they're living in apartments. That's enough to inflate their assets above the threshold for aid.

The multilayered plot also involves Charles Gage, a poor, sick man whose nonexistent "crawl space" results in his being denied medical assistance and who then inherits -- and wants to keep -- a house on the last parcel needed to complete the condo property.

The threads intertwine: Mr. Gage tries to get medical assistance while the sharpies try to get his house, and Legal Aid lawyer Sport Norris tries to help him on both fronts.

Although "Crawlspace" is his first book, Mr. Keech has honed his craft for years with short stories. An early version of the first chapter won an honorable mention in The Sun's Summer Short Fiction Contest.

"Writing is hard work," he said. "The first draft is to see if you can do it, no matter how crude it is." Rewriting becomes even harder, he said.

He got encouragement and criticisms from his friends and from his wife, Sharon, associate publisher of the monthly newspaper Baltimore's Child. As draft followed draft, Mr. Keech wrote to three publishers and about 50 agents.

"Mostly I got back one-page form letters, although a few agents actually read it and made comments -- generally that it was too long and had too much narrative," he said. The first draft ran 144,000 words. By the sixth, nine characters and nearly 50,000 words were gone.

"It's a good story, and to a layperson it offers an understanding of how things are done, good or bad, in government," said former Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, who read a proof copy. "He did a good job. I wish I could have written this book.

"In my mind I related certain characters with certain individuals I served with. The mayor brought to mind memories of a man who was petulant and received self-glory seeing his name on all kinds of projects, and the state senator was a man with deep down virtues but with ulterior motives," Mr. Steinberg said.

Jane Howle of Baskerville Publishers in Dallas, who ultimately bought the book, calls it an "an urban version of 'The Milagro Beanfield War,' " the tangled power struggle between politicians and a poor laborer with an outgunned lawyer.

After all the rejections, a friend put Mr. Keech in touch with Gerald A. Duff, a former Goucher College dean who sold Baskerville a comic novel about a East Texas cemetery called "Graveyard Working."

"I read the first 50 pages and I liked it. It's witty and well-written and has gotten beyond apprentice work. It's a good first novel," said Mr. Duff, who teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. He put Mr. Keech in touch with Baskerville. Mr. Keech said he has relaxed a bit since "Crawlspace" was accepted, but ideas are percolating again, and his basement writing lair beckons. "I'm starting to go down again," he said.

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