If E. L. Doctorow and his publisher had wanted to choose an apt title for his third collection of short stories, they might have called it "American Misfits." Although in a brief preface he expresses doubt that "stories collected in a volume have to have a common mark, or tracer, to relate them to one another," in virtually all of these tales, spanning more than 150 years of this country's history, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author portrays troubled individuals struggling to make sense of their lives in a society that exalts individualism over community.
No story better illustrates that unity than "Wakefield," which opens the volume. Drawing its inspiration from the same wellspring as John Cheever's classics "The Country Husband" or "The Swimmer," Doctorow describes a character who stumbles back to his suburban home after a power outage strands his commuter train and decides to take up residence in his detached garage, vanishing from his life in the process. Doctorow renders that bizarre premise completely plausible, as Howard Wakefield, a seemingly successful New York City attorney, manages to slip the bonds of his crumbling marriage. "I lived in Diana's judgment," he observes of his wife on the night of his fateful decision, "it shone upon me as in a prison cell where the light is never turned off."
"Walter John Harmon" and "Heist" both deal with characters experiencing crises of faith. The narrator of the former story lives in a community led by a Jim Jones/David Koresh-like character who makes off with both the narrator's wife and the community's treasury. The story's concluding sentence is as chilling as any to be found in recent short fiction. Thomas Pemberton, the protagonist of "Heist," is a troubled Episcopal priest facing professional discipline for his sermons fueled by a growing skepticism. "Why must faith rely on innocence," he asks. "Must it be blind? Why must it come of people's need to believe?"
Doctorow doesn't limit himself to male protagonists. In "A House on the Plains" (a tale that seems to share its lineage with the best of Stephen King's mature short fiction), he tells the story of a murderous widow in post-Civil War Illinois. "Jolene: A Life" recounts 10 nomadic years in the life of a young woman who marries at 15 and then flees a series of disastrous relationships across the United States, from South Carolina to West Hollywood.
What is consistent in all of these stories is the measured elegance of Doctorow's prose and the incisiveness of his character portraits. "Edgemont Drive" is the story of a man who appears one day at a home where he claims he once lived. His arrival exposes the fault lines in the occupants' marriage:
"When people speak of a haunted house, they mean ghosts flitting about in it, but that's not it at all. When a house is haunted --- what I'm trying to explain --- it is the feeling you get that it looks like you, that your soul has become architecture, and the house in all its materials has taken you over with a power akin to haunting. As if you, in fact, are the ghost."
Not all of the stories hit the mark. There are times, as in "Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate," (no apparent relation to the title character of Doctorow's novel about Depression-era mobsters), a series of sketches of the lives of two folk musicians, that his treatment of the subject matter feels almost willfully obscure. "The Hunter," the brief story of a young school teacher and menacing bus driver, suffers from the same infirmity.
Given Doctorow's age (he turned 80 in January) and stature in the literary world, it's also fair to ask why Random House hasn't seen fit yet to produce a volume of collected stories. The current collection contains six stories that appeared either in SWEET LAND STORIES, published in 2004, or in 1984's LIVES OF THE POETS. Four of the remaining six stories, including one later adapted for his novel CITY OF GOD, were first published in The New Yorker. It would hardly be a stretch to assemble his relatively small output of short fiction in one place.
These quibbles aside, the publication of any new work by this American master is something to celebrate. Coming on the heels of strong late-career novels like THE MARCH and HOMER & LANGLEY, we can hope Doctorow's fiction will continue to provoke and move us.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on March 28, 2011