E. L. Doctorow became an American household name with the publication of Ragtime in 1975. It was a jaunty book (later a successful movie) which lightened an American mood darkened by the lingering war in Vietnam. It benefited from having authentic historical figures — Harry Houdini and J. P. Morgan among them — interspersed with its fictional cast, a device that seemed a marvellous novelty at the time, though today it has become a wearingly common convention.
In this new collection of Doctorow’s short fiction, most of the stories are also set in America (with one exception), but the range of subjects is impressively eclectic. In ‘Heist’ a Catholic priest hunts through a secular Manhattan for a cross that has been stolen from his church, finding help in the unlikely form of a rabbi and his wife. In ‘The Writer in the Family,’ the father of a Jewish boy in New York dies, and the boy is pressured by his aunt to help keep this fact from his ageing grandmother — they tell the old lady her son has moved to Arizona, and the grandson concocts letters which pretend to describe his dead father’s new ‘life’. And in ‘Assimilation,’ an Hispanic-American busboy named Ramon is bribed by his foreign boss to marry a cousin from Eastern Europe so she can come to the States. This simple Green Card marriage of convenience grows complicated when Ramon finds himself falling for the girl — in a neat twist of the immigrant cliché, it is the native-born Ramon who is exploited by the new arrivals.
Ragtime’s depiction of America had darker undercurrents vying with the promise that brought people to the country in the first place, but in these more contemporary stories, there is an overwhelming post-lapsarian sense of extinguished hope. At his best, Doctorow unpeels the layers of the American dream and lets us draw our own conclusions. He says in a preface that short stories come to him ‘more or less whole,’ but in fact the less successful of his stories are those which seem too rigidly pre-formed.
In Wakefield, for example, a successful lawyer rows with his wife, then hides out for months in the attic room of the garage of their Connecticut house, emerging only when an ex-suitor of his wife arrives to woo her once again. It’s a mix of suburban realism and fantasy worthy of Cheever, but the hero is too unlikeable to move the story beyond its initial mildly comical conceit, and the ending has too pat a reversal to seem unforced.
Doctorow’s novels usually have episodic, non-sequential narratives, and work through an accumulation of effect that the brevity of short stories precludes; as the poet Charles Simic once remarked, if novels are like apartment houses, stories are ‘more like single rooms somewhere in the back’. Doctorow’s weaker stories often seem to be yearning for another room. Yet throughout the collection, the prose is appealing, controlled but energetic and capable of lush descriptive leaps:
Babs was what Diana, God help us, might be 30 years hence — high-heeled, ceramacised, liposucted, devaricosed, her golden fall of hair as hard and shiny as peanut brittle.
The lives portrayed are richly varied, their voices caught with remarkable virtuosity — as in the chilling ‘A House on the Plains,’ where we begin to realise that the homespun folksy talk of a boy living on a farm with his mother is actually describing their horrifying practice of luring mail-order suitors into their home and murdering them for their cash. Here the earlier implicit struggle in Ragtime between promise and perfidy has been lost; finishing this diverse collection, we sense that in Doctorow’s America a menacing corruption has taken hope hostage for good.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 20, 2011