New and Selected Stories
By E.L. Doctorow
Random House, 258 pp. $26 nolead ends .
Reviewed by Susan Balée
As prolific as he is protean, E.L. Doctorow regularly serves up new observations on peculiarly American characters. A year or so ago he gave us the novel
Homer and Langley
, loosely based on the true story of two early 20th-century brothers, hoarders of such magnitude that one eventually died when a massive pile of newspapers and other junk fell on him in the pair's New York City apartment.
This spring brings All the Time in the World, a "new and selected" collection of short stories. It contains not only the title story, but also 11 more tales that originally appeared in American magazines (most in the New Yorker), or earlier collections by Doctorow. I was delighted to reread several stories I loved from his 2004 collection Sweet Land Stories. Wonderful to see these out again and available to readers who didn't catch them the first time around.
The best tale in that collection is also the best tale in this one: "A House on the Plains." This is a fabulous story of mother and son grifters in late 19th-century America. The son, Earle, tells the story, which begins:
Mama said I was thenceforth to be her nephew, and to call her Aunt Dora. She said her fortune depended on her not having a son as old as eighteen who looked more like twenty. Say Aunt Dora, she said. I said it. She was not satisfied. She made me say it several times. She said I must say it believing she had taken me in since the death of her widowed brother, Horace. I said, I didn't know you had a brother named Horace. Of course I don't, she said with an amused glance at me. But it must be a good story if I could fool his son with it.
From there, the tale is off and running. Earle and his "Aunt Dora" need to get the heck out of Chicago because of an inconvenient inquest into the death of her last husband. With new names, they settle in the titular "house on the plains" and begin a new business involving a personal ad and wealthy, single Nordic farmers. Earle asks her to tell him what Nordic means. She tells him: "Well that's pure cunning right there, Earle, because that's all they got in the states where we run this - Swedes and Norwegies just off the boat. But I'm letting them know a lady's preference."
This story harks back to an American type Herman Melville first popularized in 1857 in his tale "The Confidence-Man." In Doctorow's tale, the con men include a woman particularly good at her game. You need only look at the news to see the type is still alive in both literature and life. Consider Bernie Madoff, who made off with fortunes from individuals who one would assume were far brighter than 19th-century immigrant farmers in the American heartland.
Doctorow seems telepathic in his ability to channel so many different kinds of characters - men and women from a wide range of eras, landscapes, ethnicities. This virtuosity is one reason he's such a revered writer, though he has other skills, too. One of them, especially strong in All the Time in the World, is Doctorow's plumbing of the potential of houses. "A House on the Plains" deals with the public and private (and secretive) functions of a house and its inmates. "Edgemont Drive" tells of a strange man who appears at his childhood home and shakes up the family currently living there. He tells the woman of the house, "When people speak of a haunted house, they mean ghosts flitting about in it, but that's not it at all. When a house is haunted - what I'm trying to explain - it is the feeling you get that it looks like you, that your soul has become architecture, and the house in all its materials has taken you over with a power akin to haunting. As if you, in fact, are the ghost."
My second favorite story in this collection, "The Hunter," also describes a haunted young woman drawn to an abandoned house in a dying New England mill town.
The window is punched out and she climbs through the frame and stands in the light and airy bedroom. A hemisphere of ice hangs from the ceiling. It looks like the bottom of the moon. She stands at the window and sees at the edge of the field a man in an orange jacket and red hat. She wonders if he can see her from this distance. He raises a rifle to his shoulder and a moment later she hears an odd smack as if someone has hit the siding of the house with an open palm. She does not move. The hunter lowers his rifle and steps back into the woods at the edge of the field.
Beyond our shores, tsunamis and terrorists rip apart houses and families. American soldiers fight in distant landscapes and many come back feeling like aliens in their own homes. American paranoia, as in "The Confidence-Man," seems alive and well. Americans just don't feel safe lately, not even inside our houses with the families we love. As ever, Doctorow has captured the mood of our time and rendered it in compelling fiction.