Book tour turns on respect for a colleague Author: Friends of J. Anthony Lukas pick up where his death left off -- in the process, they pay homage to the writer.

October 14, 1997|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

This past spring, author J. Anthony Lukas and Simon & Schuster publicist Victoria Meyer outlined a rigorous 21-city book tour to promote his new book, "Big Trouble," an epic account of a turn-of-the century assassination in Idaho, and its significance for a nation mired in the quicksand of class conflict and identity.

Lukas' itinerary would begin Sept. 9 in Oregon, proceed to Washington state and then Idaho, the primary locale of "Big Trouble" (Simon & Schuster, $32.50). From there, Lukas was to ** blow across the West to St. Louis and Chicago, and finally return to the East Coast. There, his whistle-stop campaign would conclude more than five weeks later with an Oct. 16 appearance at Bibelot in Baltimore.

It seemed an exhausting prospect for a man who suffered from chronic bouts of depression and had despaired that "Big Trouble," to which he had devoted eight years, had fallen short of his own unforgiving standards.

But as he plowed through devilish travel details with Meyer, Lukas appeared to relish the prospects of the hectic tour. "Every conversation was, 'Full steam ahead,' " Meyer says. I have a lot of energy; you don't have to spare me, Lukas told her.

Lukas didn't make the tour. In June, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who wrote "Common Ground," the book that humanized the Boston school desegregation drama, committed suicide. He was 64.

Friends, family and writing colleagues, while aware of Lukas' emotional struggles, were stunned that he chose to die on the threshold of renewed recognition and acclaim. When they gathered a week later to eulogize a man regarded as one of the few masters of the art of nonfiction, Lukas' admirers also wondered what they could do to pay tribute to him, to "Big Trouble" and to his singular literary legacy.

A thought emerged: What better way to acknowledge his enormous contributions than to revive the "Big Trouble" book tour?

A tour to honor

It was novelist Mark Goodman, Lukas' good friend and "co-owner" of their Rotisserie league baseball team, the Palukas, who suggested the tour, says Jonathan Yardley. The writer and Washington Post book critic was himself a close Lukas friend and had read "Big Trouble" in manuscript and galley form. Yardley liked the tour idea and proposed it to Simon & Schuster.

Soon, the publisher had assembled an abridged, memorial book tour with appearances to be made by Yardley and Goodman, authors David Halberstam and Nicholas Lemann, as well as historians Alan Brinkley and Patricia Nelson Limerick. Tonight Yardley launches "Big Trouble" on its publication date with an appearance at Bibelot in Pikesville.

While a promotional tour on behalf of a dead author may not be unprecedented, no one associated with "Big Trouble" can clearly recall a similar act of loyalty.

"I have two purposes in doing this," Yardley says from his Roland Park home. "One is to pay tribute to Tony; the other is to do whatever small thing I can do to help this book sell as well as possible."

That, Yardley says, will help support the most important person in Lukas' life and the one who has suffered most from his death, his wife, Linda Healey, an editor at Pantheon Books in Manhattan.

Since her husband died, Healey has heard from untold writers who considered him a guiding inspiration.

"When you're married to someone, you don't see them as an icon," she says with a kind laugh. And yet, she sees the tour as "a way of honoring the kind of work Tony did and what he represented to younger writers like Nick [Lemann]."

Lemann, author of "The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America," expressed his gratitude to Lukas at the June memorial service. He recalled at age 16 devouring Lukas' book "Don't Shoot, We Are Your Children."

Dream work

"It signaled the kind of work that I dreamed of doing -- long-form journalism that cast important events in terms that seemed real, journalism that was about people's lives rather than meetings and statements and official reports," Lemann recalled.

As he appears on behalf of Lukas in Chicago, Boise and New York, Lemann will try to lead the discussion where his friend would have wanted.

"Tony was writing with a literary mission in mind. He wanted to be evaluated on literary terms," Lemann says by phone from New York. "He wanted to use the power of narrative to bring attention and life to important issues in American society that usually are discussed in a kind of boring, seminar-like way. [He was] bringing themes of American life alive."

Lukas' death left Meyer, director of publicity at Simon & Schuster, in an awkward position. Although a book tour is only part of the promotional process and does not guarantee success for a book, an author's personal touch is certainly a boost to sales. A prominent advertising campaign also had been planned, and Meyer was anticipating "massive review attention."

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