Doctorow wrote some powerful short stories, but it's not clear why they need to be collected again.
There’s something unsettling about collecting, once more, the short fiction of Doctorow, who died in 2015 at age 84. Partly it’s that he remains best known for his novels: The Book of Daniel (1971), Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989). (Indeed, Doctorow published only 18 stories, parceled out over three collections, in a career spanning more than half a century.) But even more, it’s that his new book overlaps almost entirely with All the Time in the World, the new and selected stories he put out in 2011. Each of the 12 efforts there appears here as well, along with three others, drawn from Lives of the Poets (1984) and Sweet Land Stories (2004). This is not to criticize his writing, which is often sharp and resonant, just to suggest there is little point in gathering it again. Doctorow’s strength as a short story writer was similar to his strength as a novelist: an acute eye, an attention to detail, an understanding of both the promise and the limitations of narrative. “I thought how stupid, and imperceptive, and self-centered I had been,” the young narrator of “The Writer in the Family” admits, “never to have understood while he was alive what my father’s dream for his life had been.” A similar sensibility marks the magnificent “Wakefield,” inspired by the Hawthorne story of the same name, in which a successful attorney leaves his family and spends months hiding in the attic above his garage. What such stories have in common is a sense of displacement, what Doctorow once described as “dereliction”: a posture of drift or irresolution, as if the very act of living had become too much. Nonetheless, how can this not be undercut by gathering the same pieces yet again, as if they were less literature than monument? This might not be so problematic had the book included all of his short fiction, but three stories from Lives of the Poets, including the title novella, which is among the finest of his shorter works, did not make the cut.
This book leaves us to wonder about both the authority of the project and also its intention—whether or to what extent, in other words, the author’s legacy is being served.