On Native Ground

On Native Ground

I’ve long considered E.L. Doctorow the most American of contemporary writers–in a particularly classic sense.


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.

Lest we think of this as a quintessentially modern phenomenon, Doctorow begins Sweet Land Stories with “A House on the Plains,” the collection’s one piece of historical fiction, which takes place in the Midwest in the late nineteenth century. It’s a period the author has always been comfortable re-creating: Ragtime exposed the falsely formal facades of fin de siècle America with an understated elegance, while The Waterworks brought a similar sensibility to 1870s New York. Here, though, Doctorow plays against expectation by offering an unreliable narrator, who follows his middle-aged mother from Chicago to an isolated farmstead “fifty miles west of the city line.”Some money is involved, an inheritance, but the circumstances are murky, and before long, we begin to notice an atmosphere of foreboding, a sense that things are not quite as they seem. Partly, this has to do with the mother’s insistence that her son call her Aunt Dora, but even more, it is the lucent starkness of the plains. “Chicago,” the narrator tells us, “could stand up under the worst God had to offer. I understood why it was built–a place for trade, of course, with railroads and ships and so on, but mostly to give all of us a magnitude of defiance that is not provided by one house on the plains.” What Doctorow is suggesting is that all our great works, our cities and societies, are little more than shared illusions thrown up in the face of the abyss. Without them, we are hopelessly exposed, not only to the elements but to our fundamental selves. This gives the story an air of existentialism, in which we see the origins of our own America, which reflects nothing if not such an attitude. “A House on the Plains,” then, sets the stage for the remainder of the collection, which is populated by the literary offspring of this character, who, like them, considers himself to be “a stranger in a strange land.”

This idea–this very phrase, even–emerges again and again throughout Sweet Land Stories, until it becomes a motif. It’s as if, without a common point of reference, we can’t help but unravel, a process that these stories all record. Nowhere is this more vividly delineated than in “Baby Wilson” and “Walter John Harmon,” both of which traffic in millennial obsessions, the way faith often functions as a divisive force. It’s tempting to compare such pieces to City of God, which was itself a book of millennial obsessions, but here the fervor is as oppressive as a dream gone sour. In “Baby Wilson,” Lester and Karen go on the run with their stolen baby, whom she has rechristened Jesu, the ultimate virgin birth. Again, Doctorow remains ambiguous about the ironies, peppering the narrative with religious symbolism, from the makeshift family’s odyssey through the desert to the longing for redemption that pervades nearly every mile of their journey like a promise or a curse. “And from all of this,” Lester reflects, “and the sun lighting our way ahead like a golden road, I had this revelation of a new life for myself, a life I had never thought of aspiring to, where I would be someone’s husband and someone else’s father, dependable, holding down a full-time job, and building a place in the world for himself and his family. So that when he died they would mourn grievously and bless his departing spirit for the love and respectable life he had given them.” It’s a profound sentiment, heartfelt and connective, but bittersweet because Lester is already lost. The same is true of “Walter John Harmon,” which is narrated by an elder of a Branch Davidian-style religious order (“We are not idiots,” he warns. “We are not cult victims.”), who has forsaken everything, even his wife, to escape the chaos of modernity. Although his tone is never anything but reasonable, in the end he also yields to chaos, ordering a wall erected around the community’s compound that will afford “a clear and unimpeded field of fire.”

What makes these stories work is Doctorow’s empathy for his characters, his ability to get inside their isolation and let us experience it, too. It’s a remarkable transference, in which we find ourselves sympathizing with a kidnapper, or a religious fanatic gearing up for a final, apocalyptic confrontation, “a devastating enfilade.” This, of course, is the job of fiction, which, Doctorow has written, “goes everywhere, inside, outside, it stops, it goes, its action can be mental…. [It] can do anything in the dark horrors of consciousness.” Still more, it has to do with the fact that, on whatever level, we recognize these people, and feel the way they do. “Perhaps, as the prophet says,” the narrator of “Walter John Harmon” suggests, “the time for documentation comes only when the world overtakes us.” Regardless, Doctorow means to tell us that we are long past transcendence, at the vanishing point of history, in the place where desperation leads. Even the collection’s two lesser efforts–“Jolene: A Life” and “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden”–evoke such textures, although they are diminished by Doctorow’s failure to imagine himself fully into their worlds. This is especially problematic in the latter story, which involves the discovery of a child’s corpse on the White House grounds after a National Arts and Humanities Awards celebration and crosses the line from narrative into social criticism in an unfortunate way. “Wouldn’t you think it figures, from this crowd,” a White House liaison asks the FBI agent investigating the case, “something disgusting like this? The desecration of a beloved piece of ground? Not that I ever expect the artists, the writers, to show gratitude to the country they live in. They’re all knee-jerk anti-Americans.”Here alone in the collection, Doctorow seems like a writer with an ax to grind, with a political rather than a cultural agenda, which undermines the power of his work.

Ultimately, however, “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden” is oddly consistent with the rest of Sweet Land Stories–in spite of its flaws. What more vivid example of a stranger in a strange land do we need, after all, than a dead child at the White House, a child whose body was stolen, it turns out, to make a political point? In a very real sense, that child is a reflection of the kidnapped infant in “Baby Wilson,” or the forsaken narrators of “Walter John Harmon” and “A House on the Plains.” All of them are lost, adrift in an indifferent universe, united in their disassociation from the American dream. “It was three in the morning by then,” Doctorow writes in “Jolene: A Life,” “but all the streetlights were on and the traffic signals were going, though not a human being was in sight. It was all busyness on that empty street in its silence, all the store signs blazing away, the neon colors in the windows, the laundromat, the check-cashing store, the one-hour photo and passport, the newsdealer, the coffee shop, and the dry cleaner’s, and the parking meters looking made of gold under the amber light of the street lamps. It was the world going on as if people were the last thing it needed or wanted.” This is the psychic landscape of these stories, these dispatches from the dark night of the American soul.

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