ROBERT WARD has written a "proletarian novel" in Red Baker, but one quite free of the strident Marxism with which the genre is ordinarily associated. Proletarian fiction was born in the early "1930s, when communism seemed to many intellectuals a plausible solution to the social and economic inequities the Depression had exposed, and died toward the end of that decade when disillusionment with Stalin set in. Since then the working class has almost completely vanished from American fiction; now Robert Ward brings it back, in a novel that is mercifully devoid of political posturing but aches with genuine sympathy for people caught in economic circumstances hopelessly beyond their control.

The title character and narrator is a 40-year-old steelworker in East Baltimore who, asthe novel opens in the winter of 1983, has just been laid off by Larmel Steel, along with 60 percent of its work force. He's spent the last dozen years of his life "turning the huge bars of steel over with my tongs," and there's nothing else he knows; his skills are, in the cruel lingo of the unemployment office, "nontransferable." Thus he has come to a terrible hour in his life: "There was only one thing on anybody's mind. Was this the last time we all walked out of Larmel? And if so, what the hell was going to happen to us?"

Baker's initial response is quite understandably to imagine that the improbable will come to pass, that "some miracle will fall from the sky like a streaking yellow comet and that when you awaken things will be all right, the plant open again and your sweaty, clammy fear and fury will be just a cheap bad dream." But that's wishful thinking, as in his heart Baker well knows; the steel industry is undergoing traumatic change, and the working-class neighborhoods of old citieslike Baltimore are paying the price for it. If Baker and his friends are going to hold things together -- themselves, their families, their neighborhoods -- they're going to have to cut the cord to the steel mill and learn new skills.

But that, as Baker learns, is considerably more easily said than done. Baltimore isn't exactly loaded with employment options for a worker who, away from the steel mill, is considered to be unskilled -- and who further, in Baker's case, has the unpleasant complication of a police record dating back to a youthful indiscretion. When jobs come up for which he is deemed qualified, they are of a nature guaranteed to demean him and break his pride: parking yuppie cars in a garage, sweeping up yuppie trash at Harborplace. And the pay is even more degrading: $4 an hour, which is what he got as a 15-year-old for mowing lawns and clipping hedges.

Baker tries to fight his depression, tries to remind himself that his wife and 16-year-old sn depend on him, but the sense that everything is falling apart around him is simply too great. He loves his family, but he turns for comfort and escape to Crystal, the dancer in a neighborhood bar, and to his dream of somehow fleeing with her to Florida and a new life. He drinks heavily, and eventually lines up to purchase speed from the local Dr. Feelgood. He watches in despair as one former co-worker commits suicide and another -- his closest friend Dog Donahue -- grinds himself ever deeper into rage and self-pity. At last he succumbs to the overtures of a crooked cop who has lined up a heist that is, he says, "a walk"; it proves to be quite otherwise.

WHILE ALL of this external action is taking place, Baker is engaged in terrible internal battles with himself. He has the full love and support of his wife, Wanda, and his son, Ace, but he betrays them over and again because, in his refusal to face reality square-on, he weaves a tapestry of lies in which ultimately he himself is trapped:

"Long after Wanda had fallen asleep I lay there, my heart pounding, thinking how it is a man knows he believes certain things, but he slips a little here and slips a little there, and eventually he looks the same but he's not even a man at all. . . . It didn't seem possible, and then this terrible sadness came over me, and I figured that there was somebody I once was, young and pretty damned good, and this guy, this other guy believed in the future and loved his wife and kid and took them out on walks and bought his wife flowers and his son toys and came home after work and fixed the house and thought about having more kids and getting a better job at the mill, and then he began to see it all slip away. But he thought that it was still all outside of him, that even if the mill was going under, and even if he hung out with the guys too much, and even if he started whoring around and doing drugs, and all the rest, even if he was doing all that . . . underneath he was the same guy. It was like being on vacation from himself."

This is painful stuff, for Red Baker and for the reader. As he indicates at the outset Robert Ward does give Baker a happy ending of sorts, but he doesn't spare him much in the way of the hard truths; when that ending does arrive, it is purchased at very large cost. Of all the losses Baker has to suffer, surely none is greater or more painful than the knowledge that the old life is over and will never be recaptured. He lives in Highlandtown, an old Baltimore neighborhood of row houses with Formstone facades and painted screens, and you don't have to listen hard to hear the bell tolling for Highlandtown: "I knew that it wasn't just the mill that was shut down. It was everything I had known and loved about Highlandtown since I was a kid, even the streets and houses themselves. Our whole way of life was going to go."

Out of this lamentable fact Robert Ward has fashioned an admirable work of fiction. He cares deeply about its people and places, yet he doesn't give them the luxury of an ounce of sentimentality. Certainly Baker is a sympathetic character, but it isn't merely the things he can't control that bring him to the edge of ruin; his own self-deception and self-destructive behavior play substantial roles in the drama. The novel's depiction of working-class Baltimore is loving and accurate, but no false hopes are offered for its long-term prospects; what happens to Red Baker in the end is likely to happen, in various ways, to thousands of other people in Baltimore and similar cities. Robert Ward's message is that life can be hard and unfair, and that when the punches come you've got to learn to roll with them; unpleasant though that may be to contemplate, it is the truth.