Doctorow: Collected Stories
E. L. Doctorow
E. L. Doctorow was known as a novelist. Books like Ragtime and The Book of Daniel offer refreshing takes on historical settings, often involving large casts of characters with complex, interweaving stories connecting them. Now, some of Doctorow’s most notable short fiction has been re-released in this new edition. Unfortunately, his qualities as a novelist do not translate into satisfying stories. Several stories here follow too rigid a formula, and once you read a few you start to recognise the template (character makes stupid decision; crime is committed and/or solved). Too often Doctorow fails to hold the reader’s interest in plot and voice; even in the longer pieces it can feel like he is trying to cram too much in without giving the characters sufficient room in their own narratives.
This is not to say that Doctorow is completely without appeal. ‘Baby Wilson’ offers a resolution more interesting than the other stories of wrongdoing narrators on the run. The brutal take on form in ‘Willi’ works well, showing a succinctness missing from the other texts. And the plot of ‘Jolene: A Life’ moves along nicely, even if the titular protagonist is rather one-dimensional. However, it is revealing that some of the more engaging stories in this collection are connected to longer works by Doctorow. ‘Heist’ was expanded and turned into City of God; ‘The Water Works’ and ‘Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate’ both include in their titles the names of the novels derived from them. It is worth mentioning that Doctorow died in 2015, having completed his last novel, Andrew’s Brain, the previous year. There is surely little coincidence in the stories in Doctorow all having been previously published in different collections of the writer’s short fiction. With this in mind, Doctorow may be a case of publishers flogging a dead horse rather than offering fresh insight into the work of a significant American author.
Words – Stephen Cox