I’ve long considered E.L. Doctorow the most American of contemporary writers–in a particularly classic sense. To look back over his career is to see a psychic map of our obsessions, from the legends of the Old West to the betrayals of the cold war to the warp and woof of US history itself. In The Book of Daniel, the adult son of a couple very much like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg wrestles with the failed promises of American democracy, the way freedom often yields to hysteria. In Billy Bathgate, meanwhile, a Depression-era Bronx street urchin finds salvation through his association with the gangster Dutch Schultz, who offers him a wider outlook on the world. What’s astonishing is not just Doctorow’s insistence on a larger mythos but his ability to write continually from outside his experience. It’s an aesthetic that would be compelling in any era, yet seems especially so at the present, when we define ourselves in pieces, and the ideal of American identity has been reduced to a cliché.
For Doctorow, however, our divisions mask a deeper quality of connection, a vision of America as both real and metaphorical, a place where we invent ourselves as we go along. Even when he takes on the tropes of his Jewish immigrant heritage–as in World’s Fair, his most autobiographical novel, or parts of The Book of Daniel–he always ties this material to some idea of social movement larger than himself. In that regard, Doctorow is less the spiritual descendant of, say, Henry Roth or Saul Bellow than a writer like John Dos Passos, since for him the personal story is but a single thread in a more encompassing narrative, and the most important elements are those that bind us rather than set us apart.
Unlike Dos Passos, Doctorow hasn’t become a reactionary as he’s grown older; if anything, he’s opened up his point of view. His last novel, City of God, operates like an exploding universe; composed in fragments, it tells the story of a disaffected Episcopal priest who falls in love with a Reconstructionist rabbi, although at heart it’s about spiritual crisis, about what happens when we recognize that God is unresponsive, or at least beyond our comprehension, inaccessible to any meaningful extent. This is very much an American dilemma, and Doctorow’s achievement is to infuse the book with a taste of good old-fashioned transcendentalism, albeit transposed to a less contemplative age. In many ways, City of God‘s cacophony of voices–there are literally dozens of speakers, from Wittgenstein and Einstein to more modern figures–is a vivid reminder of our social dissonance, all our endlessly competing narratives. How, the novel wonders, are we to find meaning when meaning is entirely relative, on both the individual and the cosmic plain? Such a question, of course, can drive you crazy, can lead to fundamentalism or despair. Yet even at his most abstract, Doctorow remains a humanist, which means that, for him, what’s important is the asking–or, more accurately, the way we deal with these uncertainties. Whether or not we occupy a godless universe, we must find a passage, an angle of connection, a way to root ourselves. Read like this, the struggle Doctorow evokes here mirrors that of all his characters, who are seeking a foothold, a strategy for understanding, even as they recognize (as City of God makes uncomfortably explicit) that understanding will not save them in the end.
Doctorow’s new book, Sweet Land Stories, also treads the fine line between despair and fundamentalism, although in a more direct manner than City of God. What’s at stake, in other words, is not the cosmos but something considerably narrower: a handful of individual souls. Featuring five longish pieces of short fiction, Sweet Land Stories is, in many ways, a volume of shards, a collection of marginal lives. The characters it portrays, essentially one to a story, are castoffs, abandoned by history, buffeted by circumstance. There’s Lester, a loosely employed drifter whose girlfriend, Karen, kidnaps an infant from a local hospital, then claims it as her own. Or Jolene, liberated from foster care by a teenage marriage, only to end up with a succession of unscrupulous men. These are Americans, to be sure; in fact, Sweet Land Stories is Doctorow’s most overtly American work since Billy Bathgate, a state reflected by its title, which may or may not be intended as irony. Either way, the America we discover here is an America of diminished expectations, in which both myth and meaning have deserted us, and we are left with nowhere to turn. That idea is woven into the very nature of the collection, with its implication that none of these people are necessary enough to support an entire novel of their own. Rather, with Sweet Land Stories, Doctorow shifts his focus inward, giving us a glimpse of America on the fringes, of what happens when it all goes wrong.