Bitter sweetness by E. L. Doctorow

April 25, 2004|By Tess Lewis | Tess Lewis,Special to the Sun

Sweet Land Stories, by E. L. Doctorow. Random House. 148 pages. $24.95.

Although the five stories in E. L. Doctorow's new collection, Sweet Land Stories, are far more conventional in form than his prize-winning novels Ragtime, Billy Bathgate or World's Fair, the characters who animate them are anything but conventional. They are strangers in a strange and hostile land, the "sweet" of the title being a reflex of Doctorow's ingrained irony. While there is a measure of authentic sweetness in these stories, it is in the characters themselves, a touch of naivete and hopefulness that makes their failings and inevitable suffering all the more poignant.

Doctorow has long been interested in the criminal, the downtrodden and the marginalized. In Sweet Land Stories, he portrays them with compassion and nuance, inexorably drawing the reader into their minds and stories.

In "House on the Plains," a simple-minded young man has such boundless confidence in his mother's good judgment that he follows her murderous schemes even if it means implicating the one woman who has shown any fondness for him. The narrator in "Baby Wilson" is so infatuated with his girlfriend that he talks himself into believing "her kookiness was mystical," but stops just short of abetting her kidnapping of an infant. "Jolene: A Life" is the hard-luck story of a teen-age girl who marries early in order to escape from an unhappy foster home. After a series of abusive marriages, she is happy to find herself alone and even just to dream of making plans for herself, as actual plans are still out of reach.

The narrator of "Walter John Harmon" is making plans and not just for himself, but for an entire community. He and his wife join a cult, and when the leader runs off with her and the commune's cash, the narrator refuses to accept the betrayal or to return to a society that falls short of his cult's stated ideals. Instead, he reasons that this was the leader's gift, "the beautiful paradox of a prophecy fulfilling itself by means of its negation," and decides to pursue the cult's ideals, whatever the cost.

The characters' good intentions, however delusional, are a foil that illuminates the failures of America's mission to help "the tired, the poor, the huddled masses." Yet Doctorow's social and political critique is most pointed in the final story, "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden."

The body of a 6-year-old boy is discovered under some folding chairs on the White House grounds on the morning after an awards ceremony. The boy has died of natural causes. The placement of his body and the almost inconceivable breach of security involved were meant as a political statement. But, as the F.B.I. agent assigned to the case soon realizes, the ranks of those in power can close with instinctive speed and efficiency to protect their own. Agent Molloy cannot defy the cover-up but does assert his integrity and the ideals for which he has worked over a long career in a small but defiant gesture against the cynicism of a corrupt administration.

Doctorow is a riveting storyteller who has added just the right touch of bitterness to these affecting tales.

Tess Lewis has published translations from French and German and writes essays for The Hudson Review and The New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes scholar.

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