A riveting collection of five tightly plotted long stories on a favorite Doctorow theme: the tension between American institutions and the criminal elements that undermine them.
In the first of its chronologically arranged narratives, “A House on the Plains,” blandly amoral young Earle describes life on the lam with his resourceful mother, a serial seducer and “widow of several insured husbands,” as they cut a murderous path through the heartland. “Baby Wilson” tells of an infant kidnapped from a hospital by a possibly insane beauty and her smitten accomplice; Doctorow deftly reverses our initial impressions of the two and even contrives a surprisingly benign ending. “Jolene: A Life” is a more generic account of a young female drifter’s progress through three disillusioning marriages toward premature middle age and disenfranchisement from even the tinselly pop-culture dreams that sustain her. “Walter John Harmon” depicts with quiet irony its unnamed narrator’s growing allegiance to a Kansas religious cult (The Community) spearheaded by an inarticulate underachiever with messianic delusions. The narrator dutifully acknowledges that his self-sacrificing mentor “took our evil unto himself” and passively accepts ultimate evidence of Harmon’s courageous embrace of “sin and disgrace”: his appropriation of the narrator’s beautiful wife and The Community’s donated wealth. It’s a tale Mark Twain might have contrived, capped by a savage, monitory final twist. “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden” is even better, as a retired FBI agent recalls his investigation of the title incident, the suppression of its details by an embarrassed administration, and a journey to Texas that discloses a defiant gesture aimed at the conscienceless “men who run things.” The story unfolds with the fusion of authority, velocity, and suspense that made books like Ragtime and Billy Bathgate so vivid and memorable.
Fascinating work from a contemporary master.