Publication Release Date: January 10, 2017
Publishers: Random House
We lost the great American writer E.L. Doctorow last July, 2015. I remember him most for his award-winning novels “Ragtime” (1975), “Billy Bathgate” (1989), and “The March”, (2005). This book is a collection of fifteen stories, written from the 1960s into the early twenty-first century. The Goodreads blurb explains that Doctorow selected, revised, and placed them in order for this book shortly before his death. I know the author only as a historical fiction writer however in this collection I see that he could be stellar in any genre. I knew most of the stories but here are two that I never read before: “Jolene: A Life” and “A House on the Plains”.
“Jolene: A Life” takes place in current times. The protagonist is a 15 year old girl who marries to escapes her abusive home life. Unfortunately her adult life is just as sad as her youth; she does a stint in the loony bin, she becomes a topless dancer, she loses custody of her child and nothing really ever gets better for her. And yet through all of this somehow Doctorow manages to keep hope alive for his character. Okay, maybe her hope is magical thinking, but surprisingly, I did not feel depressed after I finished reading about her sad life. The story ends leaving the reader scratching their head and smiling at the comic tragedy of Jolene’s life and her never-ending quest for something better. I recently learned that this short story was turned into a film. I intend to find and stream it.
“A House on the Plains” occurs in the early 1900s. It is narrated by an 18 year old son of a very shady mother. The dull-witted son, slowly reveals his mother as a femme fatale. The reader gets the pleasure of watching Mama, who now insists that her son call her Aunt in an attempt to appear younger, make the change from city life to country life. Mama undertakes an elaborate scheme to reinvent herself in a positive image as a widow. She brings into her home foster children and demands they call her mama (while her son still calls her aunt) to help enable her into tricking Nordic immigrants into a bogus land partnership. The story is one long and very dark joke filled with crime as well as a coating of laughter.
I think both of the above stories have similar qualities that we can find in Doctorow’s “Baby Wilson” (also in the book) where a couple kidnap a child. Both absorb some of the other’s madness which becomes random craziness that somehow all works out fine. Again, classic Doctorow, this is a sorrowful tale yet the reader cannot stop smiling. There is nothing I could possibly write to capture the brilliance of this beloved author. When you are in the mood to do some serious thinking in between chuckles, read this collection of short stories by a master. I am very glad that I did.