Books by Alvarez, Fesperman join the library of Sun staffers

On Books

May 30, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

Newspaper writers, from time to time, write books. It is impossible, I believe, for a newspaper (or a books editor like me) to be credible in assessing the work of its own. Even if such judgments are pure as driven snow, should a skeptical reader reasonably be expected to believe no prejudice creeps in?

Two new books by Sun staff writers are about to appear: "Hometown Boy: The Hoodle Patrol and Other Curiosities of Baltimore," by Rafael Alvarez (Baltimore Sun, 323 pages, $13.95), and "Lie in the Dark," by Dan Fesperman (Soho, 282 pages, $24).

Given my prejudice, writing about the bookish work of my treasured colleagues, I unabashedly make no plea to be taken as objective. I and others at the Sun wish the writers well, and success for their endeavors.

Alvarez, who has been on the Sun staff for 21 years, previously has done a collection of short stories, "The Fountain of Highlandtown," put out by Woodholme House. Another, "Orlo and Leini," is to come out late this year. The pieces in "Hometown Boy" are nonfiction, all articles published in The Sun between 1979 and 1998.

They are grouped in 16 chapters, each a category: "Family," "Trades," "The Waterfront," "Keeping Faith," "Local Heroes," "Changing Times," "The Dead."

Alvarez knows the city, where he lives and works: He is at his best in this book as a jewelry maker, singularly focused on a sole, tiny topic: a one-man corner store, lone acts of faith, a branch library, a blues guitarist, a graveyard caretaker and -- yes -- a jewelry maker.

Much of the work is nostalgic, in the sense that it celebrates both the fragility and the endurance of people and places that are often overlooked or neglected --whether that is an aging person, a tradition, a battered bit of architecture or an entire neighborhood.

In "Parked at Used Car Heaven," Alvarez writes -- with characteristic affection -- of a dealer who "has done his horse trading on the same lot for some 40 years, ever since selling his last new car for Landay's Nash on South Paca Street, since the days when Maisel Street was a residential neighborhood before the Gwynns Falls flooded one too many times in the early 1970s and the city demolished the rowhouses there."

Though death and other passings play important roles in these pieces of work, none is resigned, none bitter. Alvarez is a believer -- in people and their capacity to prevail.

Dan Fesperman, a Sun staff writer since 1984, was from 1993 to 1996 this paper's Berlin-based correspondent and spent months covering the former Yugoslavia. "Lie in the Dark" is a novel and Fesperman's first book; not a paragraph of it was published on these pages.

The tapestry that forms the backdrop of Fesperman's book is immediate. He writes with sensitivity and authority about the historic, religious, microgeographic, tribal conflicts among the peoples of Eastern Europe in general and Yugoslavia in particular.

The story is set in January 1994, in Sarajevo, during the war that tore at the heart of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But all the elements -- though not the balance of power -- are virtually identical to today's bloody and ongoing conflict in the remains of Yugoslavia.

Do you wonder what it is that fuels and constantly reignites the inhumanity that now echoes from the terms "Serb," "Croat," "Chetnik," and the like? This book is a memorable, moving, maddening explanation. And then there is a detective story.

Its setting is an intricate, pitiful economy of black markets, of trading young mothers' bodies for packs of cigarettes, of single liters of gasoline going for enough to feed people, for days, though unappetizingly. All this goes on under daily, virtually random, bombardment and sniper fire. There are all the qualities of ancient and recent hatreds -- plus gross corruption, greed, calloused indifference to human need and pain.

The central character is Vlado Petric, a homicide investigator for the local police. Like other classic detectives, he is fiercely independent, decent, cursed with integrity and professionalism. He is also surrounded by thieves, knaves, opportunists and betrayers.

Deeply, he believes in "the small, slender promise that beckons to all homicide detectives -- that some day, something worthy and noble would come of his work ... that, now and then, one murder offered a portal to machinations far greater than the pulling of a trigger or the plunging of a blade."

Vlado literally stumbles across his Big Case, the murdered body of a high official -- Esmir Vitas, the top cop of the Interior Ministry's "special police" department, a bureau that combines political manipulation with bureaucratic thuggery.

Vlado is assigned by Vitas' successor to solve the murder -- with more than considerable doubt that anybody of influence wants it solved at all.

Within all the complexities, the murder story evolves into a tale of international art theft -- Big Money -- an intricate puzzle going back to World War II.

The enchantment of detective stories depends, of course, on logic. Detective fiction is not stuff for dreamers; it's for the wide-awake, attentive and calculating. Details, both elusive and obviously significant, accumulate and then begin to pull together -- or can be pulled together by an imaginative reader -- until, ultimately, there is a sense of connection. Logic makes the whole thing snap together.

By the time Fesperman has fashioned the pieces of the puzzle, the dozen or so archetypal players in this Yugoslav tragedy, it all fits -- the despair, the fatalism and the inevitable butchery.

So, still clinging to my disclaimer, confessing prejudice, I do believe you would find great pleasure in both these books.

Pub Date: 05/30/99

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