America these days doesn't have much in the way of a literaryleft, and E.L. Doctorow may well be its recruitment poster for whatremains. And yet his books over the years have been anything butblueprints for abolishing social injustice. His writer's instinctshave always been more free-wheeling and unpredictable than that.
For some, his signature book remains the gaudy and gaslit"Ragtime" (1975), his most popular book as well as his contributionto what they used to call postmodernism, with its casual blurring ofactual people and fictional creations, real events of the 1920s andpure dreamscapes. For others it might be "Billy Bathgate" (1989),that coming-of-age-as-a-gangster novel that features the single mosthorrifying mobster whack I have ever read: a man on shipboard beingfitted with concrete shoes.
For me, however, the memorable Doctorow novel is the electrifying"The Book of Daniel" (1971), a novel about two children whoseparents have been executed as spies by the U.S. government in the1950s and grow up under that burden. One joins The Movement in the1960s while the other dies of despair. Embroidered freely around thestory of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, it remains for me the bestnovel ever written about the Cold War.
But Doctorow is also an accomplished miniaturist, and an earliercollection of stories, "Lives of the Poets" (1984), also ranks highon my list. This latest collection, "Sweet Land Stories," is afollow up, and it might be called "Lives of the Americans," sinceall the stories are staged in the American heartland, wherecharacters zombie their way to peculiar destinies.
They include a widow who lures prospective suitors to her farmand then stores them in the basement ("House on the Plains"); awoman who kidnaps a baby without the vaguest idea of what to do withit ("Baby Wilson"); a young woman who drifts from evil marriage toevil marriage without understanding what happened to her ("Joline: ALife"); a religious couple in the thrall of one of those cultleaders who specialize in apocalypse while-u-wait ("Walter JohnHarmon"), and an FBI agent trying to solve the mystery of a deadchild found at the White House ("Child, Dead, In the Rose Garden").
Not all of these stories quite come to life, their charactersseeming to be little more than fleshed out headlines from The Onion,but then being too dumb to be true has never kept anything frombeing true.
The best of these stories are the most tongue-in-cheek, in whichDoctorow, juiced on his own astonishment, follows the rapture intoAmerica's spiritual theme parks, like the White House or thefundamentalist cult. In "Walter John Harmon," he creates a spiritualguru who resembles David Koresh and a dozen others. When the story'snarrator announces that his wife has been summoned to Walter JohnHarmon for Purification we can only wish him good luck.
Betty and I learned about Walter John Harmon from the Internet. Ifound myself reading someone's Web log - how that happened I can'tremember. I think of it now as the beginning of His summons, forthere is nothing without significance in this world made by God.
Doctorow has a fondness for local lingoes, and he gives us alltoo vividly a community life of Ideals, Imperatives, Assignments andObligations, which are "all pronounced, and once spoken by theprophet are carried and remembered by means of daily prayer." Thesummons to wife Betty to be purified by Walter John Harmon is justanother of those blessings that husband and wife together have tobear.
When our narrator, who is also a lawyer, is told by a newspaperreporter that "your boy" is going to be nailed, he responds, "Christwas nailed." "Yeah, the reporter said, but not for having a Swissbank account." He might as well say goodbye to his wife.
Letting dialects do their own talking is much of what thesestories are about, and Doctorow does the same for special opslanguage in "Child, Dead, in The Rose Garden," an unresolved mysteryabout a dead child found in the rose garden.
"Sweet Land Stories" is something of a tour of the Americanunconscious, that is, of characters who live their lives as thoughthey've been wound up and set into motion without any say in thematter. Doctorow's sly humor that crackles around the edges of allthese stories is his way of reassuring us that we, his readers, arenot at all like these characters.
Not one bit.
Sweet Land Stories
By E.L. Doctorow
Random House, 147 pages, $22.95.
Mark Shechner is a professor of English at the University atBuffalo.