Andrew Rosenheim

A menacing corruption

E. L. Doctorow became an American household name with the publication of Ragtime in 1975

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.

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