One of America's premier writers, the bestselling author of Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The Book of Daniel, and World's Fair turns his astonishing narrative powers to the short story in five dazzling explorations of who we are as a people and how we live.Ranging over the American continent from Alaska to Washington, D.C., these superb 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 townhouse 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"), and sharing the heartrending cross-country journey of a young woman navigating her way through three bad marriages to a kind of bruised but resolute independence ("Jolene: A Life"). And in the stunning "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden," you will witness a special agent of the FBI finding himself at a personal crossroads while investigating a grave breach of White House security. Two of these stories have already won awards as the best fiction of the year published in American periodicals, and two have been chosen for annual best-story anthologies. Composed in a variety of moods and voices, these remarkable portrayals of the American spiritual landscape show a modern master at the height of his powers.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
As one might expect of Doctorow, the title is ironic. In settings that range across the U.S., most of the alienated characters in the five stories here find life anything but sweet as they struggle to surmount the stigmas of poverty, lack of education and their instincts to gamble against the odds. Three of the male protagonists are passive and amoral; attempting to defend their irrational behavior, each reminds himself that he is not stupid. All of them-a young grifter who dutifully abets his mother's murderous greed on a farm near Chicago ("A House on the Plains"); a love-besotted accessory to a kidnapping in California (the slyly humorous "Baby Wilson"); and a cuckolded member of a religious cult commune in Kansas ("Walter John Harmon")-share a capacity for self-delusion and self-preservation. The two female protagonists attempt to alter fate and find themselves buffeted by the inescapable force of male power. The protagonist of "Jolene: A Life" is forced into a cross-country hegira in pursuit of a sweet land where she won't be an outsider. Scared and desperate despite her cool facade, Jolene becomes a victim in every relationship. If the story's denouement veers too close to soap opera, Doctorow's empathetic character portrayal redeems the plot twists. The most riveting narrative, "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden," describes a presidential administration that is secretive, arrogant and contemptuous of ordinary citizens. In this knowing treatment of the cynical abuse of power, Doctorow uses the spare, laconic style endemic to thrillers and builds suspense with sure strokes. Boring like a laser into the failures of the American dream, he captures the resilience of those who won't accept defeat. Agent, Amanda Urban. 6-city author tour. (May 4) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 10, 2005
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Excerpt from Sweet Land Stories by E.L. Doctorow
A HOUSE ON THE PLAINS
Mama said I was thenceforth to be her nephew, and to call her Aunt Dora. She said our fortune depended on her not having a son as old as eighteen who looked more like twenty. Say Aunt Dora, she said. I said it. She was not satisfied. She made me say it several times. She said I must say it believing she had taken me in since the death of her widowed brother, Horace. I said, I didn't know you had a brother named Horace. Of course I don't, she said with an amused glance at me. But it must be a good story if I could fool his son with it.
I was not offended as I watched her primp in the mirror, touching her hair as women do, although you can never see what afterwards is different.
With the life insurance, she had bought us a farm fifty miles west of the city line. Who would be there to care if I was her flesh and blood son or not But she had her plans and was looking ahead. I had no plans. I had never had plans -- just the inkling of something, sometimes, I didn't know what. I hunched over and went down the stairs with the second trunk wrapped to my back with a rope. Outside, at the foot of the stoop, the children were waiting with their scraped knees and socks around their ankles. They sang their own dirty words to a nursery rhyme. I shooed them away and they scattered off for a minute hooting and hollering and then of course came back again as I went up the stairs for the rest of the things.
Mama was standing at the empty bay window. While there is your court of inquest on the one hand, she said, on the other is your court of neighbors. Out in the country, she said, there will be no one to jump to conclusions. You can leave the door open, and the window shades up. Everything is clean and pure under the sun.
Well, I could understand that, but Chicago to my mind was the only place to be, with its grand hotels and its restaurants and paved avenues of trees and mansions. Of course not all Chicago was like that. Our third floor windows didn't look out on much besides the row of boardinghouses across the street. And it is true that in the summer people of refinement could be overcome with the smell of the stockyards, although it didn't bother me. Winter was another complaint that wasn't mine. I never minded the cold. The wind in winter blowing off the lake went whipping the ladies' skirts like a demon dancing around their ankles. And winter or summer you could always ride the electric streetcars if you had nothing else to do. I above all liked the city because it was filled with people all a-bustle, and the clatter of hooves and carriages, and with delivery wagons and drays and the peddlers and the boom and clank of the freight trains. And when those black clouds came sailing in from the west, pouring thunderstorms upon us so that you couldn't hear the cries or curses of humankind, I liked that best of all. Chicago 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. And the plains is where those storms come from.
Besides, I would miss my friend Winifred Czerwinska, who stood now on her landing as I was going downstairs with the suitcases. Come in a minute, she said, I want to give you something. I went in and she closed the door behind me. You can put those down, she said of the suitcases.