Long Island Books: Disaffected in America

By William Roberson
E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow Francesca Magnani

On any short list of the best contemporary American novelists, E.L. Doctorow’s name must appear. In a writing career of more than 50 years, he has produced some of the finest portraits of the American milieu, among them “The Book of Daniel,” “Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate,” “The March,” and, more recently, “Homer & Langley.” Understandably overshadowed by the novels is Mr. Doctorow’s shorter fiction, a relatively small production at best, most prominently displayed in the six stories included with a novella in “Lives of the Poets” (1984) and the five in “Sweet Land Stories” (2004). With the publication of “All the Time in the World,” Mr. Doctorow has produced a work that should make clear, if any further proof were necessary, that he is not one of the best novelists of his generation but simply one of its best fiction writers.
    The dozen stories of “All the Time in the World” are described as “New and Selected Stories,” but none are previously unpublished. Three appeared in “Lives of the Poets” and another three in “Sweet Land Stories.” Of the remaining, four were published in The New Yorker, another in The Kenyon Review, and the earliest, “Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate,” appeared in The North American Review in 1968.
    In a brief preface, Mr. Doctorow describes the stories as “wide-ranging pieces” unified by “the thematic segregation of their protagonists,” characters who, he suggests, are “in some sort of contest with the prevailing world.” This idea of fragmentation and the everyday psychological and spiritual struggle to find balance in the world is common enough within contemporary American literature. What is not as common, however, is the intelligence and assuredness of a writer such as Mr. Doctorow in handling these disquieting American portraits. More often than not, these textured stories are marked by an understated elegance and an exquisite control.
Mr. Doctorow also makes some interesting narrative choices in telling a number of them: “Edgemont Drive” is told entirely in dialogue without attribution, explanation, or quotation marks. “Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate” relates epi­sodes from the life of a singer-songwriter as told in the form of album liner notes (his life segments are equated with his songs, even down to the playing time), and “Wakefield” presents a contemporary retelling of a classic Nathaniel Haw­thorne story of the same name.
    There is an enigmatic quality to many of these stories — a sense that something is missing, that crucial information is being withheld. While for some readers this might give the stories an unfinished quality or the sense that they are merely fragments of larger, untold works, more often than not this sense of omission draws the reader deeper in.
    Although Mr. Doctorow has chosen a number of exceptional stories from his previous collections, notably “A House on the Plains,” “Jolene: A Life,” and “The Writer in the Family,” the newer, previously uncollected stories are among the best here. The first three stories, “Wakefield,” “Edgemont Drive,” and “Assimilation,” would be enough alone to distinguish the book as among Mr. Doctorow’s better works. The overall excellence of the best of these stories, however, causes a few less successful ones, “The Hunter” and “Willi” in particular, to suffer in comparison.
    In “Edgemont Drive” a homeless poet sits in his car in front of the house where he grew up and once lived with his wife and daughter. Suffering from “a kind of wearing out,” the man views his life in terms of the house: “it is all and indistinguishably . . . me.” The not entirely happy couple now living there is divided in their response to the man. The wife, who is open and trusting, is moved by the man’s circumstances and invites him in. Her husband, “a normally defective man,” calls the police. The poet is eventually invited to stay in the guest room, where he dies. When his daughter is not interested in claiming her father’s body, the family is left to scatter his ashes in the backyard of the house they now intend to sell.
    Ramon, a young restaurant worker in “Assimilation,” agrees to marry Jelena for money so she can legally enter the United States. He realizes too late that they are being manipulated in order to get her boyfriend, a member of the Russian mob, into the country. Ramon, however, views marriage, even an arranged one of convenience, as “a sacred bond” rather than merely an expedient means of conducting criminal business. Ramon and Jelena are unexpectedly moved by the “mysterious thing going on underneath, doing its work in the manner of fate.”

“All the Time
in the World”
E.L. Doctorow
Random House, $26

    In “Wakefield” a man simply decides one day not to return home from work to his wife and children. Rather than enter through the front door as he normally does, he goes to the attic above his detached garage. He lives there surreptitiously for almost a year, spying on his family and scavenging the neighborhood. While he occasionally tries to cloak what he does in noble terms — he refuses to “surrender to [his] former self” and he has “left the system” — he walks back through the front door with a cheery hello when his family appears to be moving on with their lives without him, including his wife, who receives a visit from a past boyfriend and her husband’s former friend and rival.
    “Wakefield” is a superb story, arguably the best in the book, and it showcases much of what is best about Mr. Doctorow as a writer. It becomes even more interesting for those readers who remember the Hawthorne story. Mr. Doctorow accepts Hawthorne’s invitation in the original story for the reader to “do his own meditation” on the subject, and his success in doing so magnifies the timelessness of the original story, already one of Hawthorne’s most modern.
    The protagonist is less extreme than Hawthorne’s, who removes himself for 20 years from his wife and former life. By allowing Wakefield to tell his own story, unlike Hawthorne, who uses a third person narrator, Mr. Doctorow emphasizes his interest in the psychological and emotional, the private life, of his protagonist, making him less an enigma than in Hawthorne’s tale.
    As in Hawthorne’s story, Wakefield steps aside for a moment but in doing so risks losing his place forever. For Hawthorne, the question is more of a universal one — what is one’s place in the larger society? But in Mr. Doctorow’s story, the question is much more immediate and personal. Here Wakefield takes a more whimsical action following an argument with his wife and builds upon his “talent for dereliction.” It ends in a moment of vanity and jealously when he realizes that his wife and “daughters seemed very together, even happy” despite his prolonged absence.
    There are few writers whose every book promises much. Fewer still are those writers who can consistently deliver on that promise. Mr. Doctorow is one of those writers. “All the Time in the World” is a timeless collection. Its few missteps are easily overlooked for the number of small, elegant masterpieces the author presents here. E.L. Doctorow’s reputation will surely rest upon the lasting achievement of his longer fiction, but his small assembly of short stories, highlighted here, are a testament to his mastery of the short form as well.

    E.L. Doctorow has a house in Sag Harbor.
    William Roberson taught literature at Southampton College for more than 30 years. A resident of Mastic, he is now at the Brentwood campus of Long Island University. His book on Walter M. Miller Jr., the author of “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” was recently published.