A collection largely bereft of nuance
In the preface to his collection of short stories, E.L. Doctorow distinguishes them from the novels that make up most of his work. Novels, he tells us, may start as an image, a bit of conversation or music, or “a presiding anger.’’ Writing them is an exploration. “You write to find out what you’re writing.’’
By contrast, a story “usually comes to you as a situation, with the characters and setting irrevocably attached to it. Stories are assertive, they are self-announcing, their voice and circumstances decided and immutable.’’
Chekhov would not agree; neither would James Joyce, William Trevor, Alice Munro, John Cheever, or even Ernest Hemingway. Kipling would, and others whom you might call defined-benefits writers, such as the late Andre Dubus, and such artisans of gotcha climaxes as Saki or, for an unfair comparison, O Henry.
Doctorow’s strength is the explorations. Their churning intellectual energies and the vivid dramas and characters that display them give individual force and provocative historical context to “Ragtime,’’ “Billy Bathgate,’’ “The March,’’ and “World’s Fair.’’ They have the space to contain it all, and even then they can sometimes strain to do it.
Short stories are a poor fit for him. The self-announcing assertiveness he speaks of all but crowds out any countercurrent of nuance. With one stunning exception, “Heist’’ — I will get to it at the end — most of the pieces in “All the Time in the World’’ (all published previously in magazines) are mousetraps. Ingenious, some of them, and catching remarkable specimens, but the deeper art of the short story is to let the mice run free, up your trousers, even.
The first two stories plant fragmentation devices beneath America’s suburbs. In “Edgemont Drive,’’ a scruffy stranger parks for days outside a couple’s house. They are about to call the police when he tells them that it was his childhood home. They invite him in, he stays on; finally he dies, thus making his claim to the house “indelible.’’ In “Wakefield’’ a commuter on his way home impulsively detours to an attic above his garage. He stays there, scavenging food from garbage cans, taking refuge in a neighbor’s basement and, after a year or so, turning up at his front door with a cheery “Hello, I’m home.’’
There is more than a casual echo of Cheever, whose suburbs rest uneasily on fault lines: in “The Swimmer,’’ for instance, where a man traverses his neighborhood by making his way through a succession of swimming pools. But where Cheever instills a sense of universal myth into his oddities, Doctorow’s oddities are little more than twists of plot.
“Jolene: A Life’’ tells of a scrappy young woman, abused from childhood and through a series of brutal liaisons, who finds a safe harbor in her gift for drawing. “Assimilation’’ gets an innocent man and his immigrant wife entangled in an incipient battle between Latino and Russian drug gangs. Neither of these accomplishes much beyond their melodramatic and rather heavily developed plotting: drumbeats without reverberations.
The more complex “Walter John Harmon,’’ portraying the evolution of a cultist commune, displays Doctorow’s gift for developing the details of an aberrant and foreboding stratum of America. The leader, a former garage mechanic, has absorbed his followers’ savings and wives (he “purifies’’ them). His ingenious rationale for his self-indulgent villainy is that by sinning he takes on his disciples own sins; he will go to hell so that they can be saved.
The title story, a stylistic contrast, is a blurry stream-of-consciousness piece that depicts the mentally disintegrating effect of New York’s shifting vertiginousness. In a similar style, but much more successful — beautifully moving, in fact — is the biographical musings of a pop musician.
The best for last. In “Heist’’ Doctorow has written a scouring portrait of Pemberton, an Episcopal priest, struggling in a New York slum parish. His church is regularly burglarized; he finds street peddlers selling his choir robes and candlesticks; and finally even the crucifix is taken. The real struggle, though, is internal; not just to maintain a Christian vocation in a cynical modern story but even to define one.
Pemberton, a Yale graduate from an upper-crust world has gladly abandoned it all to take up not just the rigors but the solitude of a modern martyr. Tillich is his model: Go right up to the abyss and pull back.
Doctorow is sardonic, even comic about Pemberton’s struggles; there is a wonderful conversation with a world-weary bishop; another with a local gang leader. Yet even as he suggests the vanity that partly underlies Pemberton’s martyrdom he conveys its agony as well.
“Heist’’ was the basis for the author’s later novel “City of God.’’ Here the story has all the power of the longer work, and perhaps more.
Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.