Charmed, I'm Sure 

Acclaimed novelist offers a sidewalk tour of one of America’s quirkiest cities

Residents of East Nashville might recognize themselves in Madison Smartt Bell’s travelogue Charm City: A Walk Through Baltimore.
Residents of East Nashville might recognize themselves in Madison Smartt Bell’s travelogue Charm City: A Walk Through Baltimore. As the Nashville native wanders his adopted home, he marvels at the effects of gentrification while simultaneously mourning the area’s crusty past. Like the Nashville suburb writ large, Bell’s Baltimore has seen its ups and downs, and struggles to balance rough edges with a renewed attempt at civility.

Accompanied by various friends and hipsters, Bell walks from his home at the city’s northern edge through a startling array of dive bars, ancient restaurants, rehabilitated factories and neighborhoods in various stages of re- or deconstruction. With an eye toward “grotesque irony,” he offers an insider’s take on a city that—as depicted in the work of writers from Edgar Allen Poe to H.L. Mencken to John Waters—has made irony a way of life. “Charm City,” as Baltimore is somewhat satirically known, has “learned to embrace its peculiarities, in the way that a family learns to cherish the oddities of a more peculiar family member.”

Bell, the acclaimed author of 12 books of fiction, has a novelist’s eye for the seemingly insignificant—as opposed to a travel writer’s fixation on the big picture. Like the Senator Theatre and the Baltimore City Fire Museum, his sentences are marvels of construction. The shortest of these are pronouncements of mood or direction; the longest are intoxicated rants, such as a 188-word whopper that covers everything from immigration to Lithuanian barmaids and honey-flavored liquor. In that case, Bell’s travel writing recalls the New Journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, only with fewer illicit substances.

With a guarded optimism, Bell plainly loves his city with all its quirks. These are discovered in layers, as waves of prosperity, unemployment and neglect (as well as the actual waves of Hurricane Isabel in 2003) have tried with only partial success to wash Baltimore away. Bell may be troubled by what’s been lost, but for the most part he remains unsentimental. Instead, he employs a matter-of-fact, once-it-was-here-and-now-it’s-gone approach that respects impermanence just as it revels in Baltimore’s tarnished remnants. The result is a treasure hunt that reads less like a travelogue and more like a novel, albeit one whose main characters have names such as “The Cat’s Eye” and “Avenue Liquors and Bar.”

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