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Book Review: "The Baker," by Paul Hond (Newsday)

Filed under: Clips

April 19, 1998

THE BAKER, by Paul Hond. Random House, 360 pp., $23.

By Emily Gordon

ONE OF THE most familiar oven-mitted characters in recent fiction is Raymond Carver’s sinister baker in the story “A Small, Good Thing,” who offers redemption in a batch of fresh rolls. Paul Hond’s first novel, “The Baker,” also tackles the themes bread and baking summon up: nourishment, creation, destruction and, bread being another name for money, that, too.

“The Baker” is the story of Mickey Lerner, onetime boxer, family man, inheritor of Lerner Bakery in Baltimore, who at nearly 60 finds himself wanting. His wife, internationally celebrated violinist Emilie (Emi) Lutter — whose improbable love is his “chief accomplishment in life” — travels constantly and is increasingly distant. Their 18-year-old son, Paul, seems to care only about video games, basketball and hanging out with Nelson, the bakery’s young black delivery man.

There seems to be little place for Mickey among the impersonal chain stores of this new city, where the great Jewish boxers no longer rule the rings, where next to Emi’s longtime pianist Mickey feels like an unsophisticated nothing. Mickey — whose business was burned in the rioting after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot — doesn’t even have the confidence for the kind of racism his friends use as a shield against the perceived threat of a changing Baltimore. He wonders what he has made of his life.

Naturally, something happens to shake him out of mid-life muddle — something so terrible everything in his world is overturned. For a time the book reads like a mystery. There are secrets to unearth, griefs to reconcile and, ultimately, a self and purpose to discover.

“The Baker” is a story of men in which the tensions between father and son resonate deeply. Bodies speak eloquently: Hond evokes all the power of the basketball court, the thrill of driving with a gun between the legs, the boxer’s face “flat as a photograph,” the comfort and inadequacy of male fellowship. Hond shows the novel’s two female characters, Emi and Nelson’s mother, Donna, only through Mickey and Paul’s impressions of them. While no fault in itself, the resulting sketchiness is frustrating. There’s little sense of Emi’s daily life as a musician, or of what her playing is like. Donna is reduced to her role as long-suffering single black mom (“Bad men all around,” she sighs) trying to keep her son decent.

Above all, “The Baker” is Baltimore’s story, as Pete Dexter’s unswerving books are Philadelphia’s. The two young men, Jewish and black, navigate the minefields of class and race laid by generations before them. Paul is no bridge to racial harmony: arrogant, impressionable and naive, he sees his friendship with Nelson mostly as a boost to his own gangsta fantasies; he’s unaware of his and others’ casual cruelty.

There are many inconsistencies, wrong notes and absurd plot developments (there’s a Paris sequence as endearing in its dottiness as it is unbelievable). Just about every loose end is tied up, everyone gets off the hook and the epiphanies come fast and furious toward the end like a runner sprinting at the finish. The lushness of Hond’s language can approach poetry — “he’d slept deeply, as if buried at sea, dreaming of women he’d never seen.” He also has a love of overloaded sentences, mixing his metaphors with a muscular stroke of the spoon: “Mickey knew that his part was over, that the evening he had merely launched would now assume its own shape and rhythm, and that the conversation — Mickey was helpless to stop it — would soon alight like some pregnant insect, on the frail-stemmed topic of murder.” One suspects that there’s an anti-Carver sensibility at work here, but when Hond does let himself speak simply, his power is considerable: “It was the day of emergency, the day without limits.” A death scene is heartbreakingly wrenching.

Once out of the oven and left to cool, “The Baker” is fresh and filling. Hond has a good ear for dialogue, some suspiciously genial Frenchmen aside. (Nelson’s nicknames for Mickey and Paul, Bread and Crumb, are a nice touch.) Hond switches among the various plotlines skillfully, keeping the story moving at a brisk pace.

Some things are never made clear, such as why Mickey’s level of sophistication seems to fade in and out. (His references to “the little colored girl” and “the gays,” amid rhapsodic accounts of Beethoven concertos, don’t ring quite true.) But Mickey is very likable; his evolving understanding of his role both within his family and in the world at large is subtle and moving. In the end, “The Baker” makes you want to go out and get a really good loaf of bread — the kind you stick your thumbs into and rip apart, the kind that gets flour and moist crumbs all over you. That’s a testament to the book’s high heat, and to Hond’s promise as a novelist.

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