Denver Bar Association
December 2002
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Prose With a Side of Poetry

by Greg Rawlings

 

Why attorney Robert Baldwin's new novel should be next on your reading list

 

If you are as sick as I am of the bloated bestsellers where writers tell 300-page stories in 500-page packages, try The Water Thief by local attorney/writer Robert Baldwin, who somehow succeeds in telling a 300-page story in less than 150 pages. Trust me, folks, this is no mean feat. This is that rare thing among modern writers: compaction.

Baldwin’s prose achieves the level of poetry in its acute depictions of the hard world that surrounds his characters, with a plot that flows with all the twists and turns of a good trout stream. Baldwin’s fictional creations have a cinematic scope that imprints pictures in your mind that you will not soon forget. You can open this novel to any page and find memorable images, like this picture painted with words:

"They slipped behind Sunday Island, beyond which Sunday Bay curled like a fish hook into a cedar and tamarack forest which rose to the spine of a long ridge."

Simple, eloquent language tied to and arising from the simple eloquence of nature.

This is not a pretty book, though. Bad things happen and happen with great grim regularity. Man, woman, child—tragedy stalks them all like some sort of primordial beast. The protagonist Jake Woods has suffered a horrible accident, one that haunts him and, in its dark way, leads to further terrible events. The women who have loved him suffer for him and with him, as does one particular child, Tay. One tragedy is always a magnet for others, and this slender novel does not give lie to that truism. Still, no matter how tough things get in this book, Jake and the people he loves (and who love him) struggle on and on. By the end of "The Water Thief," you cannot help but carry a measure of respect both for the characters and the author who brought them up from the deep well of his art.

The woods, lakes and forests of the great north have sent forth a number of great writers and great books; American fiction is all but unimaginable without the contributions engendered by them. In them remains the original spirit of America, a sense of otherness and mystery, of power and truth. Robert Baldwin has tapped into this source, has made himself look hard and deep to see how dark nature can be, and yet how this darkness is forever a challenge to men of great strength and spirit. In Jake Woods, Baldwin has created a man worthy of the challenge.

This book will last. In this brief yet epic tale, Baldwin joins that select circle of American writers—think Jim Harrison, Russell Banks, Rick Bass—who have discovered the true poetry of modern America in the realistic novel of the American backcountry. This book gazes deeply into the abyss and scarcely blinks; a rare novel that matters and seems ancient and grand and touched by myth. Yes, this book will last.


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