cover image The King of Cards

The King of Cards

Robert Ward. Pocket Books, $10 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-671-79568-9

Ward, best known for Cattle Annie and Little Britches but most admired for the somber proletarian novel Red Baker , has worked in Hollywood for years; as with Richard Price, scriptwriting seems not to have affected his prose style. In fact, style is not his strong suit; his writing is energetic and emotional but often clumsy, and his attitude toward his characters is unmodishly intense. What comes across powerfully in this novel, as in Red Baker , is Ward's passionate belief in seemingly unpromising material, which leaves the reader carried away (sometimes unwittingly) by the sheer creative energy involved. Once again the scene is Ward's native Baltimore and the hero Tom Fallon, a '60s youth grappling with literature at a minor college and a miserable home life. He falls in with Jeremy Raines, a hippie genius with a scheme to sell photographic student ID cards to America's colleges, and the story tracks Fallon's struggle between his desire to be a good student and his attraction to the heady involvement in Life (including sex, booze and drugs) that Raines and his clan offer. Though the novel is awkwardly framed by Fallon's return visit to his college for an honorary degree celebrating his success as a writer, the vital excesses of the '60s are wonderfully evoked, and there are some hilarious and touching scenes, as well as some melodramatic and highly implausible ones. Despite its faults, the book's pulsing vitality--as in the novels of Thomas Wolfe, a writer of similar faults and virtues--carries the day. (Apr.)