It's the story of his life. Robert Ward is driving home to Washington. The highway forks. His Toyota veers toward the great dirty metal river of cars heading for Baltimore. At the last second he starts, wrenches the wheel and groans:

"What am I doing? I almost went back to Baltimore! There's no escape! It's doom! I'm telling you Baltimore is Doomsville!"

Robert Ward's fourth novel, "Red Baker," the story of an unemployed Baltimore steelworker, is the first he has set in his home town. Critics have praised the book as a compassionate work in the tradition of George Orwell and John Steinbeck, and an increasingly rare addition to the shelf labeled, for lack of a less bombastic moniker, the proletarian novel.


Joyce had Dublin, William Kennedy has Albany. It may be too soon to say that Ward has Baltimore, but there is no question that Baltimore has Ward. By the scruff of the neck, which appears to leave him pleased, wary and resigned.

"I read that someone once asked Celine how he felt about Paris, and he said he had a maggoty affection for it. That's me and Baltimore. I have a maggoty affection for it.

"There's a part of me that still thinks someone's going to come up to me and say, 'Sorry, Mr. Ward, you'll have to move back to Baltimore now.' "

Ward drove by the old neighborhood last year and was stunned to see that his parents' old row house had burned. There were some kids hanging out on the corner. They looked at his car. Then they threw rocks at it.

At 41, after years on the run from his roots -- to graduate school, to Haight-Ashbury, to teaching college English, to a wired decade of free-lancing, novels and screenwriting in Manhattan -- Ward is listing homeward.

His "Red Baker" is a 40-year-old steelworker who loses his bearings, self-confidence and -- briefly -- his family when Larmel Steel lays off more than half the work force in the winter of 1983.

The state unemployment office classifies Red Baker's skills "untransferable," so he winds up stabbing trash at the Inner Harbor, parking the cars of upwardly mobile young bankers and lining up with other untransferables to buy amphetamines from the local Dr. Feelgood. His drinking and an affair with a local go-go dancer named Crystal drive his wife and son out of the house. A botched robbery scheme kills his best friend, Dog, and jolts him back to sobriety. When the novel ends he has resettled in El Paso but the old neighborhood's sustaining web of friendship, blood and memory has been swept away.

The book resonates with scenes of quiet desperation, like the morning Red's courage fails him and he goes back to bed after breakfast.

I stared up at the ceiling, at the cracks in the plaster and . . . it seemed like I could look into every home in Highlandtown and Dundalk, and they'd all be the same, the men sitting in their bathrobes, smoking cigarettes, staring at the morning game shows, maybe calling one another to keep their spirits up but having nothing to say, and finally even the sound of their buddies' voices, so hollowed out and defeated, made them feel more alone, so they stopped calling at all. And sat at white porcelain tables in their crowded kitchens underneath sunburst clocks, listening to the low drone of the TV from the other empty rooms or the radio with its loud-mouthed wake-up Balmere jocks.

Ward says, "I do have a sad feeling about it because these people are being obliterated. They're just hanging in there by their fingernails. Their unions have lost track of them. They're just disappearing into the Sunbelt."

"Red Baker" is set in the old blue-collar neighborhoods of Canton, a grid of treeless streets and narrow row houses not far from the Inner Harbor, and Highlandtown.

The area is home to steelworkers, auto workers and shipyard employes, the children and grandchildren of Polish, Italian and Greek immigrants still bound by the greenhorn ethic: work hard and don't make waves. The neighborhood has suffered with the decline of Baltimore's heavy industry.

"It's very bad," says City Councilman Dominic (Mimi) DiPietro. "It's a good thing we got some retired people, because the kids, we can't find no place to put 'em to work. The young fellas, they're working for minimum wage, mostly."

Robert Ward in Baltimore: a hip romantic in his skinny navy corduroys, dark shirt, worn leather jacket and battered boots. His hair is dark, combed up and back in a doo-wah wedge.

He stops for lunch at Haussner's Restaurant, a landmark and tourist attraction that boasts wall-to-wall oil paintings, solicitous waitresses and crabcakes the size of fists. Ward came here for holiday dinners as a child; today he props his elbows on the tablecloth and orders crab, whiskey and a beer chaser. Bill Kelch, a burly community organizer who befriended him while he was researching the book, has the stuffed shrimp.

"People in Baltimore are suspicious of people outside, but Bob's got a way about him," Kelch says. "He's got this puppy-dog thing that he's developed to get people to talk to him."

"Aw, come on, Kelch," Ward says, "I didn't develop it."

"Well, if you didn't," Kelch says matter-of-factly, reaching for a roll, "you ought to go and get it taped and sell it to the journalism schools."

Ward began the book five years ago thinking he would write a wry, ironic novel about a writer who returns to Baltimore. "I thought I was going to write a modernist novel. I was a modernist kind of guy living in New York, right?"

In search of background material, he visited Baltimore as often as three times a week, haunting union halls, go-go bars and steel mills, listening to Highlandtown's garrulous symphony of tall tales, fatalism and love.

Ward struggled with his manuscript for three years, dragging it from his apartment in Manhattan to rented houses on East Hampton and, finally, to Glover Park, where his wife-to-be was living.

"Yeah, old Bob, at times I wondered if he was ever going to finish it," Kelch says, helping himself to the bread.

"How do you think I felt?" Ward counters. "After three years I was getting a little depressed."

Once he'd heard the voice of Red Baker in his head he knew he had a novel, but it took several drafts to get him right. "I had to take the jokes and riffs out and put the agony in.

"The one thing I didn't want to do is write a proletarian novel where Mr. Perfect fights evil John Corporation. And I didn't want the characters to be noble savages, either."

Ward grew up in close-knit, lower-middle-class neighborhoods in the northern part of the city, a landscape of well-tended row houses and modest bungalows. "I felt trapped there, but there was also this tremendous camaraderie. I still see a lot of those guys. People who move around all the time may never have that; it may be a part of the American experience that's disappearing."

His mother was a secretary, his father wanted to be a painter, he says, but wound up working for the state government. The expectation was that Ward would settle down, too.

"It was like, you live in a neighborhood, you marry the girl down the block, you drink some Boh, you eat some crabs, you have some kids, probably even live in the house your parents lived in, or you buy a house down the street and that's it. Well, that's great, and there's something about it that's very appealing, but the flip side is, if you're different, you're suspect. If you're an artist, you must be a faggot or you must be a commie, you must really be different. The old Baltimore line, 'He thinks who he is.' " Meaning, Ward says, "He's got an attitude, he thinks he's better than anybody else.

"There's a tremendous leveling process in Baltimore; it's true of any group, but it's really true of a provincial place where people are very suspect of the outside world. That was true of the Baltimore where I grew up and I think it's still that way."

After high school Ward drifted into Towson State University and studied English under professors who were preaching the gospel of the Ironic Sensibility, in which Henry James is seated at the right hand of God and writers like George Orwell and Richard Wright are pamphleteers.

He was overwhelmed. "What was I going to write about, the pool hall?" But he enlisted anyway: "I might not be the richest kid, or the handsomest, but by God I would be among the elect in sensibility."

In the '60s, which he defends as "a great decade, no matter what people are saying about it now," Ward took off for Haight Ashbury, got a master's in writing at the University of Arkansas, joined a local rock band, helped found an underground newspaper. He married and divorced twice, taught college English in New York State and Illinois ("It was supposed to be idyllic; it was more like 'The Shining' "), and wrote and published a novel, "Shedding Skin," about the whole experience.

By the early '70s he'd escaped to Manhattan. "New York is the place everybody comes because they don't want to be where they grew up; you meet a lot of people like yourself there. And you're around people who are really striving for serious stuff.

"The spirit of Baltimore was if you tried to do too much you were too big for your britches, but in New York, it was just the opposite. You weren't successful enough, you weren't trying enough." He wrote a thriller he'd rather forget and a novel, "Cattle Annie and Little Britches," that became a critically acclaimed movie. In between he got ulcers grinding out magazine stories about people like Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin.

"Tough guys," he calls them.

Travels in Baltimore with Robert Ward: His attitude wavers between affection and affectionate derision and his accent gets more baroque by the block. The Baltimore Colts become the "Bawlmer Coats," the Orioles the "Eh-ohs." The sound is closemouthed, slightly conspiratorial. "It's the sound of the little guy who thinks someone may be gaining on him," he says.

We pass a corner tavern: "The great thing about Baltimore is there are no pretensions."

A moment later: "Hey, did you know film director John Waters called Baltimore the hairdo capital of the world?"

On an old commercial boulevard of worn shopfronts Ward rushes to inspect the window of a formal-wear shop.

"Can you believe that?" he says, pointing at a mannequin outfitted with an Arnel wig, enamel grimace and a velvet-trimmed tuxedo. "Look at that face! It's the Texas tower killer!"

"I had to get rid of all the baggage to write this book," Ward says. "I had to stop being 'smart,' in the sense of 'Vanity Fair' smart. All that modernist garbage from academia that says in order for a novel to be good it has to be Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets the modernist meets the Katzenjammer Kids, the idea that you have to show off your brains and all that crap.

"I found out it's a much more humble thing to write about real people. You have to think about what kind of pictures they have in their houses, how they cut their bread. I had to go back."

Ward expounded upon that epiphany in a brash two-page essay that appeared in a recent issue of Publishers Weekly:

"Both editors and writers share a belief in the Tower of Sensibility, and the Proper Literary Subject (well-to-do middle-class people). They shake their heads, they worry about 'the death of literature.'

"It never seems to occur to either group that they are snobs -- that many editors and many writers hold the average American in contempt. It never seems to occur to them that the novels they publish frequently have nothing to say and are written by myopic, narcissistic bores. These are books that scream: "Look at my love life! Look at how my therapist treats me! See how sad my celebrity has made me! My cocaine! My country house! My tenure! . . ."

Ward says that is less an argument that some people's problems are more worthy than others than a cry for similar scrutiny of the lives of the working class and poor. "What happened to writers who had a larger vision of the world? Writers who were able to submerge their precious selves into the difficult but rewarding task of creating characters unlike themselves? Writers, like Tolstoy, who took real chances and understood that personal fates were tied up with great historical moments?"

Robert Ward at home, slouched in an easy chair, nursing a vodka and surrounded by a comfortable clutter of furniture, posters and books. There is a guitar on the floor, a glass vase of red birthday roses for Celeste, his wife of eight months.

He left New York for Washington last year. "My friend short story writer Ellen Gilchrist has a great line about Manhattan: 'Lots of people sitting at little tables eating little sandwiches, and they're all wearing great big coats.' "

His street in Glover Park reminds him of the old neighborhood. Same red-brick row houses, same roomy concrete stoops. "All that's missing are the toolboxes in the basement and Kay Starr on the radio."

He's already written a film script for Red Baker. He'd like to see Gary Busey play Red, "and I think Nick Nolte would make a good 'Dog.' " He bristles when he's asked which comes first, screen writing or novels. He interviewed James Garner recently for Gentlemen's Quarterly. "He said, 'Well, you only wrote it to be a movie.'

"I wrote it to write it," Ward says. "I do scripts because it pays." He says the movie will be filmed in Baltimore "if I have to slit my wrists," and he's taking acting lessons at the Studio Theatre.

He's ambivalent about the New Baltimore, the gentrified and renewed Baltimore embodied by the aggressive trendiness of the Inner Harbor. "God knows they had to do something with it, it looked like Dresden," he says. "But unfortunately they have turned it into a theme park. It wasn't great before, all bag-booze rummies sitting under a tin pier. But there was something great about those guys, they were like cowboys. It was romantic and interesting. Whatever it was, it wasn't this yuppie paradise."

Paradise lost, paradise found: "I think I had to go all over to get a sense of perspective on the place, but I had to come back to find out more about myself. Now I want to write nothing but good books about it.

"I don't think I'd ever want to move back; there's a little too much living in the past for my taste, all these guys waxing nostalgic. On the other hand, that sense of being in touch with the past is so important . . . I don't think people can be human without it . . ."

He collapses in his seat and lets his arms flop over the side of the chair. "I guess you could say I'm ambivalent about it."