E.L. Doctorow’s latest collection of short fiction, entitled Sweet Land Stories, is about what he terms “magnitudes of defiance.” The five stories are about social systems — class, legal, legislative, spiritual, and otherwise — but unlike the works of the younger generation that includes David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and—to the extent that he is any good — Rick Moody, Doctorow’s subjects are not participants in the system, but those people irretrievably outside it. The stories are straightforward only on their plainspoken surfaces, but they conceal a deep network of ideas that build on each other as the collection progresses. Doctorow’s characters begin to define themselves against the system and try — usually hopelessly — to work against it, not to bring it down but to halt its encroachment into their lives.
An exemplar of authorial control, the first story, “A House on the Plains,” begins with eighteen-year-old Earle and his mother triumphantly moving out of Chicago to a big house in LaVille, Illinois. Doctorow tells very little about either of them, but slyly implies their back stories and their attitudes towards each other and the people around them, carefully crafting the story from what the words do not describe. “Even in the farthest reaches of the countryside, you lived in society,” Earle observes, and Doctorow makes it clear that he and his mother live beyond the law, even if they are beholden to what the law upholds. “The purpose of life,” she lectures her son, “is to improve your station in it.”
Each story connects thematically with the others, but there are more formal strands that run throughout the collection, creating an all-encompassing arc. Fortunately, Doctorow doesn’t intend Sweet Land Stories to read as a novel-in-short-stories, but the collection proves to be something more than simply an assemblage of recently published short fiction. Each story picks up where the other leaves off, not with the characters but with their general predicaments. “A House on the Plains,” for instance, ends with a troubled couple’s direst moment, which is where “Baby Wilson” begins, with a “crazy lovesick” woman stealing a newborn baby while her boyfriend, the narrator, tries to protect her. It ends after they have married and established a precarious domesticity, similar to the one in which the collection’s strongest story, “Jolene: A Life,” begins.
Jolene — possibly based on Dolly Parton’s hit song — is a 15-year-old girl married to a twenty-year-old truck driver named Mickey, “a sweet boy if without very much upstairs.” After that relationship ends disastrously, she becomes a teenage hitchhiker, tattoo artist, stripper, battered wife, and finally a mother robbed of her child. Doctorow does a tremendous service by humanizing country music’s “other woman” archetype, and the story ends with Jolene only 25 years old, already with a full life behind her, no notion of her future, and no one to share it with: “she was as alone as she had always been, a stranger in a strange land.”
The final two stories describe that “strange land” in religious and legal terms, which intersect in surprising ways. “Walter John Harmon” takes its title from the guru of a religious sect, whose members find the secular world encroaching on their faith. “We are not idiots,” explains Jim, the sect’s attorney and the story’s narrator. “We are not cult victims. In many quarters we are laughed at for following as God’s prophet a garage mechanic who in his teens was imprisoned for car theft. But this blessed man has revolutionized our lives.”
The irony is that Walter John Harmon — whose very name encompasses both harm and harmony — steals Jim’s wife and deserts his followers. As Jim becomes increasingly involved with the Elders’ governance of the compound, Doctorow leaves his motivations eerily and effectively ambiguous: either Jim’s faith has become more solid or his renewed devotion is a defensive response to his wife’s betrayal. Either way it represents the lengths he and the other believers will go to justify and defend their faith.
“Walter John Harmon” ends with the implied threat of violence, and “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden” begins with the aftermath of a very different kind of violence. Brian Molloy is an FBI special agent investigating a case involving, as the title suggests, the body of a six-year-old boy dumped in the Rose Garden following a National Arts and Humanities Awards banquet. The story becomes a kind of activism through fiction, and despite the bluntness with which it unfolds, Doctorow succeeds mainly because he never lets the events or their telling veer into didacticism. While it does suggest that the government works “beyond the comprehension of ordinary citizens,” the thrust of “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden”– of the entire collection, in fact — rests more on individual actions and responsibilities. Grand statements, Doctorow seems to suggest, can be covered up and conspired away, but smaller, more personal defiances can carry much more weight. If they don’t derail the system, at least they make it easier for ordinary citizens to live within it.