One of America’s premier writers, the bestselling author of Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The Book of Daniel, and World’s Fair turns his astonishing narrative powers to the short story in five dazzling explorations of who we are as a people and how we live.
Ranging over the American continent from Alaska to Washington, D.C., these superb short works are crafted with all the weight and resonance of the novels for which E. L. Doctorow is famous. You will find yourself set down in a mysterious redbrick townhouse in rural Illinois (“A House on the Plains”), working things out with a baby-kidnapping couple in California (“Baby Wilson”), living on a religious-cult commune in Kansas (“Walter John Harmon”), and sharing the heartrending cross-country journey of a young woman navigating her way through three bad marriages to a kind of bruised but resolute independence (“Jolene: A Life”). And in the stunning “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden,” you will witness a special agent of the FBI finding himself at a personal crossroads while investigating a grave breach of White House security.
Two of these stories have already won awards as the best fiction of the year published in American periodicals, and two have been chosen for annual best-story anthologies.
Composed in a variety of moods and voices, these remarkable portrayals of the American spiritual landscape show a modern master at the height of his powers.
As one might expect of Doctorow, the title is ironic. In settings that range across the U.S., most of the alienated characters in the five stories here find life anything but sweet as they struggle to surmount the stigmas of poverty, lack of education and their instincts to gamble against the odds. Three of the male protagonists are passive and amoral; attempting to defend their irrational behavior, each reminds himself that he is not stupid. All of them a young grifter who dutifully abets his mother's murderous greed on a farm near Chicago ("A House on the Plains"); a love-besotted accessory to a kidnapping in California (the slyly humorous "Baby Wilson"); and a cuckolded member of a religious cult commune in Kansas ("Walter John Harmon") share a capacity for self-delusion and self-preservation. The two female protagonists attempt to alter fate and find themselves buffeted by the inescapable force of male power. The protagonist of "Jolene: A Life" is forced into a cross-country hegira in pursuit of a sweet land where she won't be an outsider. Scared and desperate despite her cool facade, Jolene becomes a victim in every relationship. If the story's denouement veers too close to soap opera, Doctorow's empathetic character portrayal redeems the plot twists. The most riveting narrative, "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden," describes a presidential administration that is secretive, arrogant and contemptuous of ordinary citizens. In this knowing treatment of the cynical abuse of power, Doctorow uses the spare, laconic style endemic to thrillers and builds suspense with sure strokes. Boring like a laser into the failures of the American dream, he captures the resilience of those who won't accept defeat.