EL Doctorow died last year, and the literary world—well, at least the English-speaking part of it—mourned. I know I did. He was one of the finest writers ever to grace the planet, and so when I spotted this collection of stories, even though I understood that I had probably read most or all of them already I snapped it up. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The collection will be available to the public November 1.
I am bemused by “The Writer in the Family”; I had read it before, but it’s worth reading again. Families are complicated, and Doctorow deftly creates a deeply dysfunctional dynamic with this one. Check out the premise:
“In 1955 my father died with his ancient mother still alive in a nursing home. The old lady was ninety and hadn’t even known he was ill. Thinking the shock might kill her, my aunts told her that he had moved to Arizona for his bronchitis…And so it came about that as we mourned him in our stocking feet, my grandmother was bragging to her cronies about her son’s new life in the dry air of the desert.”
But Grandma can’t understand why her son isn’t writing to her; this will never do. Thus the aunts approach the protagonist. “You’re the writer in the family,” they open, and then present the obligation to him, that he must forge a letter to Grandma from his late father. The aunts will go to the nursing home and read it aloud to her; all he has to do is write something. And of course one letter isn’t enough; there must be more, more, more, and so even as he is grieving his father’s loss, our protagonist, the good son, nephew, grandson that doesn’t make waves, is required to plagiarize one letter after another in his father’s name, until a shift alters the equation.
Because Doctorow wasn’t just any writer, I visited his Wikipedia page before writing this review, and I learned that his first name was Edgar and that he was named for Edgar Allan Poe; he was expected to become a writer. I trust his parents were satisfied. At the same time, I found myself wondering how many times he had been told that since he was the writer in the family, it was up to him to do this, that, the other. All speculation, of course, but they say to write what you know, and perhaps to some extent, he did.
On my actual bookshelves, the ones made with wood and that have books made of cardboard, cloth, and paper on them, I have half a shelf devoted to this writer’s work, and so when I downloaded this DRC, I went and retrieved the collection of his short stories that I already owned (and paid for), All the Time in the World, which was published in 2011. I wanted to see what difference there was. I found that this new collection has two stories I hadn’t read before, and so that was where my focus began. For those that also already have this author’s complete works up to now, the new short stories are “Baby Wilson” and “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden”. The other difference is that the short story on which his outstanding novel The Waterworks is based is presented here. That one is short indeed, and it’s strong enough that it’s easy to see why he selected it to expand into novel form (which I highly recommend).
Ordinarily I would say that I’d have been annoyed had I paid full jacket price for this one, with a dozen reprinted short stories I already own; the premise for a novel I already own; and two lonely stories that are new to me. But this is Doctorow, and so my rules are different. Were I not a book blogger and able to get a DRC, I would probably wait for this one to turn up in used bookstores so that I could buy it on the cheap, but one way or another, I would have to have it. And to be sure, both stories—though maybe not good choices for the pregnant reader, given that they involve a dead child and an abducted newborn—are absolutely brilliant. Baby Wilson in particular builds irresistibly and is a masterpiece, but the voice in the Rose Garden story is guaranteed to produce chills.
I also reread my old favorites, among them “Walter John Harmond”. Whoa.
As always, Doctorow’s writing is hyper-literate. If you try to read this while doing something else, you will be lost, and I don’t recommend it to anyone for whom English is not the mother tongue unless the reader is so steeped in the language as to be comfortable with heavy literary fiction.
Don’t try to skim; savor it.
Highly recommended to the fluent reader that loves great literary fiction.