Sweet Land Stories


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These dazzling short works are crafted with all the weight and resonance of the novels for which E. L. Doctorow is famous. You will find yourself set down in a mysterious redbrick house in rural Illinois ('A House on the Plains'), working things out with a baby-kidnapping couple in California ('Baby Wilson'), living on a religious-cult commune in Kansas ('Walter John Harmon'), sharing the heartrending cross-country journey of a young woman navigating her way through three bad marriages ('Jolene: A Life'), and witnessing an ...

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Oct 3, 2017

Doctorow's Sweet Land

I read and enjoyed Doctorow's current historical novel of Sherman's march, "The March," and wanted to read more. Doctorow's "Sweet Land Stories" (2004) lacks the sweep of his Civil War novel. But it excels in its picture of American down-and-outers, loners, losers, grifters, and wanderers. It includes short but unforgettable scenes of a varied and almost timeless America, in rural Illinois, Chicago, Alaska, a religious commune, Las Vegas, and elsewhere.

The book consists of five short stories, four of which appeared initially in the New Yorker while the fifth story, "Child, Dead in the Rose Garden" appeared first in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Each of the stories is faced-paced, draws the reader into the action, and can be read easily in a single sitting. The stories reminded me of Hubert Selby's "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and of the novels of Charles Bukowski without their rawness. Doctorow's is the voice of a polished literary artist.

Three of the stories are told in the first person by male narrators. The first story "A House on the Plains" is recounted by Earle and tells of his conniving and murderous mother on a small farm in Illinois. For all the brutality and irony of the story, the characters come alive sympathetically. "Baby Wilson" is told in the voice of a young man with nowhere particular to go whose girlfriend has kidnapped a baby claiming it is the couple's. We are treated to a picturesque ride through dusty roads and small towns as the two loners truly become a couple and parents as well as they struggle to resolve the situation.

"Walter John Harmon" tells the story of its namesake, a former garage mechanic and thief, and current alcoholic and philanderer, who becomes the leader of a religious commune. But the narrator is an attorney who has given up a staid if successful law practice and, with his wife Betty has joined the commune. The tone of the story is set by its first sentence: "When Betty told me she would go that night to Walter John Harmon, I didn't think I reacted." Doctorow shows the credulous, unresolved needs of many people, including highly educated individuals, for belief and spiritual support, as the narrator is cuckolded by Walter John Harmon who runs off with Betty and abandons the commune to its fate.

The story "Jolene:A Life" tells of a young woman with three bad marriages and other affairs who works through a life of trouble and attains a degree of peace at the end. This is a tawdry story with tawdry scenes, tattoo parlors, topless bars, sexual abuse, gangster-style killings, convincingly portrayed. Jolene struggles throughout all this to develop her talent as an artist.

The final story, "Child Dead, in the Rose Garden" seems to me weaker than the others in that it is too overtly political. I had the same problem with Doctorow's "The Book of Daniel" which is a fictionalized account of the Rosenbergs. This story also differs from its companions in that the protagonist is not a down-and-outer but a respectable person in a responsible job. The story is about the adventures of a retired special agent named B.W. Molloy who, over official resistance, solves a mystery about how the body of a dead child was found in the White House Rose Garden and in the process learns a good deal about himself.

Doctorow has made his reputation, and deservedly so, as a writer of American historical fiction. This book is smaller in scope than novels such as "The March" but perhaps digs deeper into the hearts of its characters. This book together with Doctorow's difficult modern novel "City of God" which to me shows the promise of a secular, open America, are thoughtful, spiritual works which I have greatly enjoyed.

Robin Friedman

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