Monday, August 9, 2010

Baker earns readers' trust with 'A Good Man'

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 19, 2009

Baker earns readers' trust with 'A Good Man'

By Jeff Charis-Carlson

Iowa Cityscapes

Last year, former Iowa City Councilor Larry Baker confided in me that he was working on a novel that he feared might be "too crazy" -- too much of a wild romp through American religious, political and literary themes.

Having been blown away by Baker's first novel, "Flamingo Rising" -- and having appreciated the many insights into Iowa City politics he provided in his second novel, "Athens, America" -- I asked if I could sneak a peek at the manuscript for this new novel.

After a few weeks -- and after being sworn to secrecy -- Baker finally agreed to e-mail me a draft of "A Good Man." He said he was hesitant because he wasn't sure if the novel was brilliant (an effective political and social satire of America between 2000 and 2008) or just self-indulgent prose by an English major. (Lucky for him -- and for me -- the novel was a lot of the former and had only bits of the latter.)

When reading "A Good Man," it gradually becomes obvious that Baker expects a lot from his readers. The main character, Harry Ducharme, is a late-night radio host in Florida who, in response to the tragedy of 9/11, begins preaching on the air. But it's a preaching that takes all of American literature -- rather than any specific religious book -- as its sacred text. It's a preaching that attracts the attention of Nora, the reclusive and enigmatic cooking show host who finally invites Harry into her inner social circle. And it's a preaching that begins to resonate with a new religious movement about to burst on the national scene.

Baker does a fine job telling Harry's story, showing how this middle-aged, functioning alcoholic tries to come to terms with his inner demons and eventually rebuilds his career and personal life. But Baker also interrupts Harry's fictional story with snippets from actual newspapers, magazines and blogs -- articles and columns that explore America's fascination with its home-grown religious movements. He also throws in historic vignettes that range from the Stonewall riots of 1969, to 9/11, to the 2008 presidential election.

And if all that wasn't enough for readers to keep in mind, Baker also offers "A Good Man" as a sequel to "Flamingo Rising." While it's not necessary to have read the earlier novel to appreciate "A Good Man," the new novel does answer many of the questions about what happened to those earlier characters after their chaotic summer spent in the biggest drive-in theater in Florida.

After reading the earlier draft, I told Baker that the novel was brilliant and exciting to read, but I agreed that it probably was all but unpublishable in today's literary marketplace.

Luckily, Steve Semken at Ice Cube Press disagreed with my assessment and decided to accept the publishing challenge. Baker then began to focus on showing how Harry's story ties together his many disparate themes.

In short, the final version of "A Good Man" comes across as the product of a tragic-comic imagination as religiously haunted as Flannery O'Connor's and as "this world"-oriented as a Harry Chapin song.

That's why it's important to know know that Baker lifted his main character straight out of an O'Connor short story that features its own blend of dysfunctional families, religious tent meetings and untimely death.

"If you want to see who Harry really is, read O'Connor's 'The River,'" Baker told me. "He was created by her, killed off and resurrected by me. Trust me, I think, it all makes sense."

Baker not only earns his readers' and his publisher's trust, but he also has attracted attention from filmmakers interested in documenting the process by which this book was written, published, marketed and received. Anyone who attends his Prairie Lights reading at 7 p.m. today should be prepared to ask a lot of questions and to smile for the cameras.

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