An eclectic selection of shorter fiction from a veteran author more renowned for his novels.
Following what was widely considered one of his better recent novels (Homer & Langley, 2009), the New York writer best known for his interweave of fact and fiction in Ragtime (1975) does the authorial equivalent of a closet cleaning with a dozen stories that find him adopting a variety of narrative voices and perspectives. Seven of the stories originally appeared in the New Yorker, and one of those (“Heist”) was later incorporated into the novel City of God (2000). Another, “Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate,” reads like an addendum to Billy Bathgate (1989), like the notes to a collection of songs by the protagonist, each a paragraph long (though one paragraph extends over five pages), likely inscrutable to those unfamiliar with the novel. Yet there is plenty of first-rate work here to please Doctorow fans and others who appreciate a well-told story. Many of them have a spiritual dimension, and the most provocative of these is “Walter John Harmon,” the testament of a lawyer involved with a religious cult and his growing suspicions that the unlikely prophet has designs on the narrator’s wife. The shortest story, “Willi,” ranks with the most powerful, as an older man recalls a boyhood experience in which a Whitmanesque rapture over the joys of being alive in nature proceeded to a discovery of his mother’s affair, and the uneasy mixture of betrayal and desire his mother’s sexuality elicited. “Jolene: A Life” strays far from Doctorow’s usual territory, in its narrative of a poor Southern girl whose attractiveness toward the wrong kind of men proves a curse. And while the concluding title story would seem to place the fiction in more familiar terrain, its Manhattan metaphysics are more reminiscent of Paul Auster’s New York than Doctorow’s.
A warm-up volume for the “collected stories” that will eventually, inevitably follow.