Friday, April 13, 2012

Robert Ward's RENEGADES

Renegades, by Robert Ward (Tyrus Books, 2012)

There once was a certain breed of men (and manly ones, to boot) that specialized in crafting journalistic “pieces” for magazines. Some had yearly contracts to tackle say, six assignments; others freelanced like gypsies on the road. Robert Ward was one such road writer during the last hurrah of “New Journalism,” with notepad, plane ticket and bourbon in hand. Deadlines were their own form of amphetamine.

As a teenager, Bob Ward was so innocent, he “didn’t know mere mortals could even meet Elvis.” He learned this when carousing as a teen with a seafaring vaudevillian who appeared in the 1964 Presley flick, Roustabout. The fellow was a mate of Ward’s sea-captain grandfather. Finally, granddad took Bob himself on as a “mate” one night. Cap Ward introduced his grandson to Baltimore’s waterfront bars, strip dives and Blaze Starr herself. Bob never realized his granddad even knew about such things. Ol’ Cap Ward beats young Bob to the punch, slugging out a longshoreman who insults Bob’s grandmother.

A few years later, Ward trips down the rabbit hole, escaping working-class Baltimore for anything-goes New York. New intros and postscripts to each article give Renegades an autobiographical flair.

We meet the deposed leader of South Vietnam, reduced to operating a liquor store in California. Ward reveals the “core” of painter LeRoy Neiman, the Liberace of art. The Outlaw Country movement in Texas is shown up as an impure enterprise of Capitalism. He’s there during Mark “The Bird” Fidrych’s phenomenal rookie season, wherein the pitcher comes off as baseball’s Gomer Pyle. However, among the athletes profiled, Pistol Pete Maravich and Johnny Unitas earn our highest admiration.

Shadowing Larry Flynt during Hustler’s second year, Ward found his delicate sensibilities offended. Having narrowly escaped atrophy as a young Lit professor at William Smith College, Ward deemed the upstart magazine “gross.”

“I’m here to set the record straight,” he told his subjects. None of them questioned the neutrality of such a claim. Until they saw themselves in print. Hold a mirror up to almost anyone, and they’ll want to kill you.

Ward knew exactly what he was doing on the page, and made his point without stating it pointblank. He could size up a character or scene quicker than a hundred psychiatrists. Unimpressed by mere celebrity. Confronted with pomposity or self-deception, he questioned what’s fake and celebrated what’s real. All those good things, now rare in the dying magazine market, dominated by fluff pieces that submit to publicists and advertisers. Editors left Ward alone, let him do it his waywhich is usually the only way a master can work.

© 2012 Josh Alan Friedman

Renegades by Robert Ward is available here.

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