E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime (1975), Loon Lake (1980), and Billy Bathgate (1989), has died at the age of 84. Although he is much better known as a novelist, he did publish a number of short stories, his best collection, in my opinion being Sweetland Stories in 2004
Acknowledging that the novel has always been his typical rhythm, Doctorow, in an interview after the publication of this collection of stories, said that while editing Best American Stories: 2000, he discovered that many authors were not writing the tight epiphanic Chekhovian story, but rather were going back to the more leisurely plot-based story typical of the nineteenth century. The result of this realization are these five long stories, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker.
I have discussed one of the stories in this collection, "Jolene," along with the film version of that story, in an earlier blog. I offer the following comments on other stories in Sweetland Stories in Doctorow's honor.
The stories are primarily plot-based, recounted in a seemingly artless, casual tone--three told in first-person by deluded male narrators and two narrated in third person by ironic storytellers. What is arguably “sweet” about these stories is the naiveté and innocence, thus ultimately the self-delusion, of the central characters as they seek to achieve the American dream, find transcendence in a savior, or uphold their ideals in the face of political chicanery.
“A House on the Plains” is a comic/horror, con artist story, told by the slow-witted son of a “merry widow” mother. After the father, who the mother says was pretty smart, “for a man,” mysteriously dies, the widow thinks it best that she and her son leave Chicago for a small town in Illinois where no one will jump to conclusions. Once settled, she takes in three orphans from a New York social organization and ominously declares soon after that if they don’t come up with some money before winter the only resources they will have is the insurance she took out on the three children.
The mother, a bigger-than-life, pragmatic believer in the American Dream, advertises for immigrant men, particular Swedes and Norwegians, to join her in a partnership in a bountiful farm in the Midwest. However, one by one the men who visit her disappear as her bank account increases from their insurance policies. When the brother of one of the missing men arrives and begins to ask uncomfortable questions, the mother, nonplussed, formulates an escape plan that, despite its appalling results, is treated as blithely as the rest of the horrors in this comic tall tale. Quite simply, she cuts off the heads of the nosey brother and her housekeeper to make it look as she and her son have died in a fire and frames her handyman for the arson.
The story ends with the handyman in jail, Mama in California, and the narrator son reunited with his sexual partner from Chicago. The fact that three orphans, several innocent men, and the housekeeper are all dead is, of course, just part of the comic tone of this tall tale that makes us admire Mama for her achieving the American Dream of financial independence.
Doctorow has said that “Baby Wilson,” chosen for Best American Short Stories 2003, was inspired by his seeing a young woman in a long paisley dress walking along the Coast Highway in Southern California. Although Doctorow says he is not sure why he made her into Karen Robileaux, the kidnapper of a newborn baby, he thinks he must have decided as a premise for the story that while a man would kidnap a child for ransom, a woman would want the child for herself.
The story is told by Lester Romanowski, Karen’s shiftless boyfriend. When she brings the stolen baby home, she declares it is her own newborn child that she is giving to Lester to be his son. Lester decides he is going to reform himself into a person who makes executive decisions. He wins some money at gambling, procures six fake credit cards and goes to sleep thinking what a “great country this was.”
In a family van he buys with an American Express Gold Card, Lester and his “imitation wife and child” head west, of course, to California. With the sun lighting their way like a “gold road,” he has a revelation of a new life for himself, where he will become a dependable father with a full-time job. However, his dreams are dashed when he hears on the radio that the family of the kidnapped child has received a ransom note. Can you believe the evil in this world? he asks Karen, who articulates the theme of the story by saying that she has faith that people can be redeemed.
Lester and Karen drop the baby off at a church and head to Alaska, another place where people live and let live, a place where nobody asks too many questions. When Karen gets pregnant, Lester declares himself alert and “ready for inspiration.”
“Walter John Harmon” is also a story about self-delusion. The narrator, a former lawyer who has joined a religious group lead by an uneducated garage mechanic named Walter John Harmon, insists that he and his wife are not cult victims, and allows his wife to take part in a “purification” sex ceremony with the cult leader.
The Community survives because many of the followers are lawyers, accountants, public relations experts, and computer specialists, who know how to keep the outside world at a distance. The story focuses on the means by which Harmon maintains his charismatic hold on the Community and how the members protect themselves from the outside world.
The followers’ need to believe is so strong that even when Walter John deserts them with the narrator’s wife, the Elders, using the vague language and zany logic of philosophic sophistry and Messianic Christianity, argue that this immersion in sin and disgrace is a beautiful paradox of a prophecy fulfilling itself by means of its negation. The narrator basks in the glory of his unfaithful wife who has been chosen to join Harmon.
Discovering half-burned papers in which Harmon has laid out plans for a wall to be built around the compound, a task the Community finds difficult since all their estates have been placed in Harmon’s name in Swiss bank accounts, the destitute group undergoes a harsh winter. The story ends ominously with the narrator planning to build the wall, noting that the plans, in spite of Harmon’s lack of military experience, provide the Community with a clear and unimpeded field of fire.
“Child, Dead in the Rose Garden” follows the conventions of a political mystery. Told by a White House Special Agent, B. W. Molloy, the story recounts the implications and effects of the discovery of a dead five-year-old boy in the Rose Garden of the White House. Only five months from retirement, Molloy, a twenty-four year veteran of the FBI, gets the case. Suspecting a symbolic act by terrorists, the administration wants the investigation to be kept secret, and Molloy finds himself running into obstructions from the head of the White House Office of Domestic Policy, who insists that the body was never found, that the event never happened. Molloy, however, perseveres and flies to the boy’s home in Houston, only to find out that the child’s immigrant parents are being detained by the INS. Further investigation reveals that the boy’s father was a gardener for a wealthy Texan, been a strong supporter of the President.
The source of the mystery turns out to be the man’s daughter, Chrissie Stevens, who engineered the placement of the boy, who died of natural causes, to shock those that run things into some sense of responsibility. After warning the Office of Domestic Policy at the White House that if the boy’s parents are not released by the INS, he will give the story to major newspapers, Molloy resigns from the Bureau and writes a letter to the Guzmans telling them that their son will lie in an unmarked grave in Arlington National Cemetery among others who died for their country.
These are entertaining and diverting stories that explore the nature of individual human hopes and the national mythos of the American Dream told by a master storyteller.