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Picking Up Where Author Left Off

September 25, 1997|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What's a publisher to do when an author dies shortly before his new book is scheduled to come out? Who will describe the author's long labors and highlight the themes he sought to draw in his work? How can the book be promoted without a creator to take a bow?

In the case of the late J. Anthony Lukas, one of the lions of the journalistic profession, friends and colleagues who are all too familiar with the need to trumpet a new book have volunteered to represent him in stores and other places where he was scheduled to appear starting next month.

Lukas, 64, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize who had been haunted by depression, committed suicide in June as he was completing "Big Trouble" for Simon & Schuster. It's another impressive opus from Lukas, an 832-page chronicle of a little-remembered but greatly revealing episode in American history.

Subtitled "A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America," the book uses the assassination of former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg in 1905 and the subsequent high-profile murder trial of radical union leader William "Big Bill" Haywood to explore class divisions that threatened to ignite the country. After completing "Common Ground," Lukas' Pulitzer-winning account of racial unrest and the Boston school-busing crisis, he turned to the Steunenberg case as a way to encapsulate the unwieldy subject of class. "I conceived the idea of writing about that moment in American life when we came closest, as a society, to something that might be called class war," he recalled.

It took Lukas eight years to complete "Big Trouble"--eight years of sifting through the sands of time that had long since fallen on that remote period.

Seeking to ensure that Lukas' ambitious achievement receives proper attention in a fall crowded, as always, with myriad new books, are such stand-ins as David Halberstam and Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post columnist (and author of "Misfit," a new Random House biography of the writer Frederick Exley). In addition, Nicholas Lemann, national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and author of "The Promised Land" (Vintage), historian Alan Brinkley and scholar Patricia Nelson Limerick will be making bookstore appearances and doing readings from "Big Trouble" around the country.

Meantime, Lemann also is continuing another effort that was important to Lukas. Elected president of the Authors Guild in February, Lukas wanted to investigate what he believed was the imperiled future of so-called mid-list books. These are the serious titles written by less-than-famous authors in this superstore era, when commercial prospects appear to favor books that commanded huge advances or come with a celebrity byline.

Lemann is heading a study group of Authors Guild members who will seek a better understanding of what is happening in publishing by consulting with industry leaders. In addition, Lemann said this week, the group has applied for a grant to hire someone who would spend six months or so investigating the status of the mid-list book.

When a Book Makes News Lucky is the author whose new book contains real news that helps separate the title from the dozens of others published each week. So it is with Richard Firstman and Jamie Talan's "The Death of Innocents," newly released by Bantam Books.

The husband-and-wife team revisit the story of Waneta Hoyt, who was convicted two years ago of murdering five of her children in upstate New York between 1965 and 1971. The long-belated prosecution successfully shattered a medical finding that the cause in all five instances was sudden infant death syndrome.

Though the book "is paced like a thriller, and it will be read like one," as novelist Frederick Busch raved last week in his New York Times review, the authors' additional reporting into the medical and scientific background of the Hoyt case has generated ongoing national attention.

The Washington Post, the New York Times and other news organizations have echoed the authors' finding that, as Newsweek put it, the Hoyt case "became the basis for a SIDS paper so influential that it put blinders on pediatricians and researchers for 25 years, preventing most of them from considering homicide when babies died for no apparent reason." Indeed, because of the book, the October issue of Pediatrics will contain an apologetic editorial stating that the medical journal should never have published the influential SIDS paper 25 years ago.

Wednesday's premiere broadcast on CBS of "Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel" also is expected to review the book's influential conclusions.

Firstman is a former Newsday reporter and editor; Talan writes about science and medicine for the paper.

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