Grunge, a bookie, grief, true fiction

Books Of The Region

June 25, 2000|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

On a messy bed, in a stale apartment, on a side street in upper Manhattan, Richard Tisch lies there, hugely hungover. The phone rings -- some nut who won't take "wrong number" for an answer, who calls again, and again.

This book must be, could only be, by Stephen Dixon. And true enough, the author of "Tisch" (Red Hen Press, 175 pages, $14.95) is the long-haul star of the Writing Seminars faculty at Johns Hopkins University. And the novelist and short story writer whose evocations of urban grunge have become a literary landmark.

Dixon has been at Johns Hopkins 20 years now; his various national awards do not count up that high, but the total of his published novels and short story collections is also 20 -- thanks to "Tisch," which he wrote first of all but which had not been published until now. The time is accordingly a generation ago, but the people milling around in these bars, or on the sidewalk outside socking one another, or day-dreaming about sex and money, are unchanged.

For possible income, Tisch was writing a history of honey since ancient times. Don't look for it on any of the book dot-coms.

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In Baltimore, Bob Litwin and Chip Silverman look back not on alcohol as a denominator of the common man, but gambling. In yesterday's city (the action today being in casinos, slots, pools, etc.), people bet on horses. The convenient office or neighborhood bookie was a cog in an impressive organization -- run by Mr. D. The full name is Louis Dante, as Litwin and Silverman construct him in their thriller, "The Last Bookmaker" (Borderlands Press, 267 pages, $24.95).

The key to professional gambling is the layoff, or hedge, that protects the bookmaker from the disaster of a long-odds winner carrying many bets. Mr. D. is the apex of Baltimore's layoff pyramid, and he does all this free of mob connections or interference. All would be peachy-keen -- if only the law weren't after him. His empire has had internal enmities and careless telephoning; jail awaits.

Litwin and Silverman are good at the backward local glance: viz., their earlier book about strip joints, "The Block," and Silverman's book about Barry Levinson-land, "Diner Guys." Done as fiction, their Baltimore is frantically active but full of real-life words and scenes.

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Worse than failure, which still leaves hope, is loss, after which is nothing. Elisabeth Stevens' husband died abruptly, long ago. She and her daughter, age 7 at the time, have gone about life ever since, but the hurt remains. Stevens, talented in words and draftsmanship, has published variously over the years -- art criticism, poetry, fiction, block prints and other art works. In her latest publication, "Household Words" (Three Conditions Press, 52 pages, $11.95), Stevens greets that frequent visitor, the past; otherwise, she accepts grief as best she can.

She had had an earlier blow: her father's death, which was equally sudden. Stevens offers peace terms to that memory as well.

"Household Words," sponsored by the Maryland State Poetry and Literary Society, also includes an interview with Stevens by Rosemary Klein and Barbara M. Simon, as well as essays by Simon, Rosemarie Zannino-Bracken and Anne Barney on "Grief and the Healing Power of Poetry."

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Ordinarily, the book that gets reviewed is the one just published; it may be skimped or even squeezed out altogether. Originally, no publisher accepted Stephen Dixon's "Tisch." Sometimes a publisher thinks an old book deserves a new edition, but it is not reviewed. Here are two books in new versions that do seem worth mention.

George Alfred Townsend's true-fiction book "The Entailed Hat; or, Patty Cannon's Times," about a Delaware woman who in the 1820s organized the kidnaping of free blacks and their sale into slavery, came out in 1884, to acclaim. (Townsend, who signed himself "Gath," was a Civil War correspondent who afterward built himself a home, not to mention a stone arch memorializing war correspondents, outside Burkittsville.) Today, Townsend as stylist comes across as very 1884.

But Hal Roth of Vienna, author and editor, had the bright idea of photographing the many specific sites mentioned in "The Entailed Hat." These pictures, including Cannon's Ferry and Cannon Hall, are a helpful pull on the reader's backward journey. The new edition is from Nanticoke Books (555 pages, $19.95).

Eugene L. Meyer of Silver Spring has ranged Maryland for two decades, writing feature stories for the Washington Post. His 1986 book, "Maryland Lost and Found" is now out again, enlarged and updated, as "Maryland Lost and Found ... Again" (Woodholme, 280 pages, $15.95). Meyer does not attempt all-inclusiveness; of 16 chapters, only one centers on Baltimore.

Rather, Meyer is our own Marco Polo, balancing interviews, explanatory background and lively commentary. Many another writer envies him his summation: "Maryland is the damnedest place. Or places."

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"Carpe Diem: The 20th Century Pilgrimage of an Imparfit Knight" by Charles B. Reeves Jr. (Gateway, 362 pages, $27.95) is the autobiography of an old-family, upper-class, law-practicing Baltimorean. Born in 1923, white-whiskered by now, Reeves has lived the good life: friends in high places, skiing, travel, ridings to hounds, philanthropy, the presidency of the Maryland Club. If "Carpe Diem" ("Seize the day") consists mainly of story after story, well told but unreflective, here is nonetheless a world nowadays much neglected by outside observers.

James H. Bready writes a monthly column on regional books. Previously he worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor for The Evening Sun.

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