Alvarez’ “Storyteller” Has Characters Galore (Book Review)
Rafael Alvarez' "Storyteller" is a delight to read. It's mostly about larger than life characters from Baltimore, MD. But, that doesn't mean you have to be from there to enjoy it as much as I did. Alvarez was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun for 23 years (1978-2001). He literally covered the waterfront, and if necessary, he did the obits. "Storyteller" is made up of 67 newspaper articles, two essays and three well-honed short stories.
"Our meat is aged, our fish is fresh and our butchers are both." (1)
On May 23, 2010, I attended a book reading at the Crystal Moll Gallery in South Baltimore. Rafael Alvarez, a local who worked for twenty three years as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, was one of the participants. Afterwards, he signed copies of his book, "Storyteller, published in 2001, the same year he hung up his pad and pencil at the Sun.
Reading "Storyteller," I enjoyed recognizing so many of the colorful Baltimore characters that Alvarez spotlighted. He knows how to tell a story that vividly recreates people, scenes and places from a time--(1978-2001)--that is fast gathering cobwebs.
Legends, like the Sun's incomparable sport scribe, John Steadman, are in "Storyteller," along with magician, "The Great Dantini"; the ILA's Gilbert Lukowski, whom I knew from my days on the Baltimore waterfront; Frank Zappa, and, the iconic film producer and director, John Waters.
"Storyteller" also contains Alvarez's pieces on and references to: a Cross Country tour; the city's Mt. Vernon Place; its "Broadway Pier"; Ocean City; book store owner, Abe Sherman; "Mr. Diz; "Aunt" Mary Dobkin and her Little League teams; Abel Wolman, a "water purification" expert; George Figgs, who ran the "Orpheum Cinema" on Thames Street; and, Virginia S. Baker, who promoted "fun events" for the city. Alvarez' stories are sure to entertain you and jar your memory cells.
Alvarez's fourth book is a combination of 67 of his articles from his time at the Sun; plus two essays and three short stories. In his last spiel for the Sun, "Fare Thee Well," he reflected on his more than two decades as a journalist. Alvarez wrote: "I paid my dues on the city desk--from chasing cops to obits to the callous surgery of rewrite and the free verse of a thousand weather stories...I've sliced the rough cloth of life in Baltimore into ribbons just long enough for a single bow."
One of Alvarez's articles is an obit that jumped right up at me. It's about Lee Halfpenny. Like myself, he originally hailed from Locust Point, in South Baltimore. For many years, Halfpenny "taught pugilistic arts at the YMCA," then located at Cathedral and Franklin Streets. Hey, I was one of the kids he tried to teach back in the 50s! "Throw your jabs from the shoulder," Halfpenny told me, firmly. Hell, none of it did me any good. I've yet to win my first fight. But, who cares? I got a chance to know and admire Halfpenny, and Alvarez reminded me of that fact.
Alvarez cites how Halfpenny helped to "develop talent" such as Red Burman, who was good enough to get a match with the then-heavyweight champ, Joe Louis. Unfortunately, he lost! Burman later worked in the city's Court House as a Deputy Sheriff.
Part of Alvarez's beat included crime and the courts. He reported on a case where a defendant had stabbed his uncle to death over a "debt of $4.75." Before sentencing the killer to "life" in the slammer, the trial judge, the Hon. Kenneth L. Johnson, uttered this classic line: "Everybody has a right not be murdered!"
In another case, Alvarez wrote about "an unruly fan" at the now-defunct Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street. The baseball devotee was giving a Washington Senator player, Jim Piersall, a mean-spirited ribbing. Piersall, "who was the subject of a movie, 'Fear Strikes Out,'" went into the stands after the guy. There was a tussle. A cop arrested both of them. Here's the zinger: Alvarez relates how the judge, Robert Hammerman, tossed out the charges against Piersall. He ruled that the fan had "abused his privilege to heckle players" and that under those circumstances, Piersall had the right "to lose his temper!" Now, this is the kind of "thing," not exactly kosher, that is so quintessentially Baltimore and it's why I love this town and reading about it.
Let me mention that Alvarez read on May 23rd, at the Crystal Moll Gallery, "Where (Book) Lovers Settle Between the Covers." It is available on the Internet. (2) That particular article, like so many in "Storyteller," exemplifies the keen insight and reporter's eye that Alvarez brings to his craft.
Alvarez' articles on Highlandtown's "Grand Theater," (now, sadly, history); and "Matthew's Pizzaria"--(it's on Eastern Avenue, across the street from the Creative Alliance)--brought back a flood of fond recollections for me. I remember going often to the movies at the Grand, with a girlfriend from Fait Avenue, and then afterwards having a pizza at Matthew's.
Shifting gears! Alvarez's three short stories show off his considerable writing skills at their fullest exposition. In "Wedding Day," the subject is instinct. The protagonist, Basilio Boullosa, is in recovery, sort of. His first marriage to a gal named "Trudy," was a train wreck. Acting as a "best man" at a wedding held at the Basilica of the Assumption, in Baltimore, he spots a bridesmaid-- Roxanne. Nature takes over! After a reception at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, across the street from the Cathedral, Basilio, a struggling artist, puts a move on Roxanne. Before you can say, "Clinton Street," the duo are in a dive in Highlandtown with three characters who I could swear came out of a John Waters' film. This is a fun ride and its ending has some real magic in it.
"The Fountain of Highlandtown" also has a role for our young artist, Basilio. This time he is one of three narrators. The other two sharing their points of view are Katherine, a nurse at Johns Hopkins hospital; and, Basilio's Grandpop. Down on his luck, Basilio is living with his grandpop in an East Baltimore row house, while trying to score with Katherine. Grandpop is a retiree from the Sparrows Point shipyard, who thinks: "Two Basilios in one house is one too many." The "Fountain of Highlandtown" is a charmer and the characters are all credible and well drawn. It also flushed with the landmarks of East Baltimore.
This brings me to Alvarez's third story, "Pilgrim Reluctant." It's essentially about human loneliness. I love this tale! My only criticism is that I wish there were more back story in it. Ruthie, the protagonist, is fifteen years old and an outcast from her upscale family.
One "brutal January night in Baltimore," Ruthie leaves Mercy Hospital's maternity ward, where she has just had a baby and a heart operation. Traveling in her "nightgown and gym shoes," she makes her way east, with infant baby "Gloria," towards the grimmest of this city's landmarks--the Maryland Penitentiary! There, she meets a cook at the institution, a "redeemed murderer in his mid-50s," with the moniker of Petush-El.
Alvarez deftly sets up "Pilgrim Reluctant" for its finale. He has one member of a "submerged population," Ruthie--the family loser--looking around desperately for help. (3) Who does she turn to? Why, Petush-El! Who's doing a life sentence at the big house. Read the book to see what happens to Ruthie.
Alvarez's "Storyteller" is a delight to read, and you don't have to be from Baltimore, either, to enjoy it as much as I did.
1. Alvarez's "Immigrant Grocer Went First Class in Roland Park."
3. Frank O'Connor's "The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story."
William Hughes is a author and videographer. His videos can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=liamh2 and http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=liamh2 and link to vimeo.com
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