Archive for Sunday, May 23, 2004

E.L. Doctorow lights out for the heartland

May 23, 2004

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— On a leisurely spring afternoon, author E.L. Doctorow sits for an interview in his office at New York University, a professorial figure with his high forehead and soft beard, his wry smile fitting for a man who always seems to be debating how much he's willing to tell.

With books by Stendhal, Tolstoy and other favorites stacked on shelves behind him and his own books on shelves in front of him, it is a comfortable setting for the author of "Ragtime," "Billy Bathgate" and other acclaimed best sellers. A professor of creative writing at NYU, the 73-year-old Doctorow has been publishing novels for more than 40 years and remains committed to storytelling at a time when readers seem preoccupied with politics, diets and spirituality.

"Fiction writers have always faced obstacles of this sort," he says. "So part of the game is figuring out how to move the audience.

Although known for historical novels based in New York City, Doctorow always has been willing to experiment. He has written a Western ("Welcome to Hard Times") and science fiction ("Big as Life"). He has written in third person and first person, about religious quests ("City of God") and matters of the flesh ("Billy Bathgate").

His current book, "Sweet Land Stories," is another departure, fiction set mostly in such unlikely terrain (for Doctorow) as Alaska and Kansas. Instead of urban legends stocked with the likes of Henry Ford and Harry Houdini, he presents a series of old-fashioned, non-urban tales.

"I edited an anthology of short stories in 2000 ("The Best American Short Stories") and I realized that some of the writers I was enjoying most were from other countries -- from the Caribbean, from Latin America, from Eastern Europe, Korea, China.

"And they were not doing the classic modern short story. ... These people were writing stories more like the tales being written in the 19th century. They didn't start close to the end of the action. They took their time. And I felt, 'Yeah, why not?"'

Doctorow did not do any firsthand research for his stories. Instead, he began with an image or a historical event, as in "A House on the Plains," based on the true story of a murderer who hides out in rural Illinois.

The characters in "Sweet Land" are outsiders, finding -- or losing -- their place in a world that has granted them little actual power. "Walter John Harmon" is the story of a cult commune in Kansas. In "Jolene: A Life," a young woman from the South survives three marriages and ends up in Hollywood, dreaming of the movies.

Doctorow's prose in "Sweet Land" seems nothing like that of his previous works, but there is no single "Doctorow" voice. In "Sweet Land," he is plain and naturalistic, as if the open territory of the stories inspired a direct approach in his work.

Doctorow is a longtime liberal, and the book's final story, "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden," comes closest to political commentary. The main character is a special agent, B.W. Molloy, who tries to discover how the body of a dead boy ends up on the grounds of the White House. Molloy finds himself frustrated by a secretive administration and oppressed by Washington, D.C., as a whole.

"Classical, white and monumentalized, it looked like no other American city. It was someone's fantasy of august government," Doctorow writes. "He kept to the federal business streets, where the ranks of dark windows between the columns of the long pedimented buildings suggested a nation's business that was beyond the comprehension of ordinary citizens."

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