He's one of our more political novelists, a three-time winner of the National Book Critics Circle award and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. No one writes social satire quite like E.L. Doctorow.
"All the Time in the World" is only his third collection, but in the best of these 12 stories, a half-dozen of which had been uncollected, Doctorow satirizes contemporary life. These incisive stories talk of immigration troubles, doubt, loss of faith and marital squabbles. They address the strange bonds that tie people to their former homes. They depict how ordinary folks will follow a charismatic leader no matter where they're led.
In "Assimilation," the newest story in this first-rate collection, Ramon marries Russian Jelena so she can get her green card. But she's mixed up with Russian gangsters who bully and take advantage of Ramon. Luckily, Ramon has some recourse because of his gangsta brother's connections.
Doctorow retells Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Wakefield" in a story of the same name. This time, Wakefield is a lawyer, married 14 years. He's had a quarrel with his wife, mostly because of his jealousy. He claims he had no thought of deserting her, but he leaves his family, home and career to live in the unheated attic above his garage, to forage from garbage cans, all the while spying on his wife and family.
Told only in dialogue, "Edgemont Drive" is about a poet who returns to stalk the house where he once lived for three days. His visit worsens the friction between a husband and wife, who are already in a distressed marriage.
The community members in "Walter John Harmon" don't see themselves as cult members, despite all the evidence around them. They adhere to the word of Walter, no matter what he's done or will do. A former garage mechanic, once imprisoned for car theft, he is now, ever since the Lord came to him in a Kansas tornado, a prophet of God. He insists, "We are not a church, we are an Unfolding Revelation." Walter takes on the sins of his followers, knowing full well, as do his disciples, that he will go to hell, especially after he runs off with the narrator's wife.
In "Heist," developed later into the novel "City of God," the Rev. Thomas Pemberton becomes an amateur detective who tries to recover objects stolen from St. Timothy's Episcopal Church. He has little success as a "Divinity Detective" and is beginning to fail, too, in his pursuit of the mystery of God.
Doctorow cares about the characters he lampoons. Never as simple as they seem on the surface, his stories are full of paradox and good humor with a sometimes caustic underbelly; they're absurd in a funny sort of way. He reveals the quirks of our society in the kind of stories others can only aspire to write.
Joseph Peschel is a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota.