SWEET LAND STORIES
by E.L. Doctorow
It would be easy to call E.L. Doctorow the preeminent writer of historical fiction in America, but it would also be inaccurate. For Doctorow has accomplished nothing in his long and distinguished career, if not to illustrate just how flimsy and artificial the walls of the literary ghetto that constitutes “historical fiction” really are.
From the doubt-haunted western, Welcome to Hard Times; to his seminal recasting of the last turn of a century, Ragtime; through his exquisite, quasi-memoir World’s Fair, to the bold, spectral, The Waterworks —Doctorow has succeeded as no one else has in tying our history to our present, and our future. Like some wayward family pet, he has dug cheerfully, even joyously away at our cozy, received notions of the American past, laying the disturbing truths he has turned up brazenly on our doorstep.
Now the master is back with Sweet Land Stories, his first collection of short fiction since he published the superb Lives of the Poets twenty years ago. It is a slim volume, only five stories in all—yet it illustrates as well as anything Doctorow has ever written just how interchangeable our present and our supposedly long buried past really are.
Doctorow has tried his hand at contemporary fiction before—originally in his brave, experimental Big As Life; more successfully in his last novel, City of God—but here he is able move seamlessly from one time to another. The first of these stories is set a century or so in the past, the other four more or less in the here and now, but all of them could be essentially anytime in America. They are united by the sorts of marginal characters who have always resided on the periphery of our civilization, though the reasons for how they came to reside there differ greatly. Doctorow’s protagonists include a pair of serial murderers, a delusional young baby thief, a petty criminal and hustler; a teenage wife, a member of a cult, a mentally fragile young heiress, a disillusioned FBI agent.
And all of them remain, each in their own, twisted ways, stubbornly optimistic—a trait which marks them as distinctly American. They scheme, steal, dare, plan, and improvise endlessly, still convinced that they can find whatever they are looking for—money, love, justice, a rationale for their own existence—somewhere out in the sweet, vast, land. Physically, most them start out west of the Mississippi, and tend to only slide farther west. Even the addled young lovers in “Baby Wilson,” who we first meet in some Los Angeles slum, manage to end up in Alaska—after a quick detour to Las Vegas, the undisputed capital of all our most tawdry dreams.
It is Doctorow’s genius that he is not unsympathetic to even the creepiest of their aspirations. One actually finds oneself rooting for the murderous, mother-son duo in “A House on the Plains,” the best story in the collection, and one that speaks directly to the underside of the great American push westward, and upward. Our history is spotted with chilling with just such examples of how dangerous it can be to rely upon the kindness of strangers—of the innocent-looking homestead out on the prairie, or the bland house in a huge, anonymous new city like Chicago, where all who entered in were never seen or heard of again.
Doctorow’s ability to create such an unlikely identification is due in no small part to his expert use of an elusive, first-person narrator. Semi-naïve, subtly disingenuous—not quite an unreliable narrator per se, but a voice that one begins to suspect is telling us exactly what we want to hear. This is a real high-wire act, one that Doctorow employed to good effect in his hustlers’ novels, Loon Lake and Billy Bathgate, but he has honed it near to perfection in three of the stories here. He uses it both to build a sympathy for the hard-pressed hustler in “Baby Wilson”—then to slowly pull it out from under the feet of the lawyer-turned-cult-acolyte in “Walter John Harmon.” It is, as well, a marvelous vehicle for Doctorow’s typically clean, sparse prose, and the dry wit, the sheer ebullience that have always served to leaven even his darkest creations.
The two, third-person stories work less well, but they also demonstrate the author’s fundamental empathy toward his characters. If “Jolene: A Life,” reads something like a bad country-western song, with one heart-wrenching cliche after another perpetrated upon its young heroine, Doctorow seems to be suggesting that many American lives are nothing but second acts today; an exhausting treadmill of reinventions, recoveries, retrainings, marriages and divorces.
Even the weakest story here, “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden”—an overly preachy tale about someone leaving the body of a child on the White House grounds—succeeds in establishing both how far Doctorow’s characters are from having any real effect on the world they inhabit, and how stubbornly they refuse to admit this. Can anyone today doubt that the administration in power would react just as it does in the story—secretly burying the body, threatening and harassing anyone who might leak the story? Or that its troubled protagonist would feel so distant from “the gentlemen who run things” that she laments, “I just thought maybe this could restore them, put them back among us.” Another American on the margins, still hoping to be heard after all this time.
Kevin Baker is the author of the historical novels, Dreamland and Paradise Alley.
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