When I was a kid, I often bore the distinction of being the second-smartest kid in the class. You’d think it would be an honor, but then, how often do we watch silver medalists at the Olympics stand ashamed, tears streaming, because they were not the very, very best? And so as I read these gob-smackingly brilliant short stories by Doctorow, I know exactly who he would have been in my life. He would have been that smartest kid, that gold medalist. I could never even touch his writing ability with anything I produced.
Back when I was that second-smartest student, I would have burned with envy at Doctorow’s brilliance, but now I can only bow in awe. What talent—and what a work ethic! He has produced prodigious prose over his lifetime, and I don’t think he has ever published anything that wasn’t top drawer work.
Here’s his author blurb, lifted from Goodreads.com:
“Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle Awards, two PEN Faulkner Awards, The Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. In 2009 he was short listed for the Man Booker International Prize honoring a writer’s lifetime achievement in fiction, and in 2012 he won the PEN Saul Bellow Award given to an author whose “scale of achievement over a sustained career places him in the highest rank of American Literature.” In 2013 the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Gold Medal for Fiction.”
I rest my case, at least in terms of the author’s overall prowess. And no friends, I did not read this as an ARC; I don’t think Doctorow even needs people like me reviewing him, but I do so because it brings me joy. I ferreted this hardcover treasure from among the stacks at my favorite Seattle used book store, Magus Books, in the University of Washington neighborhood. I considered the used-book price a steal, and have enjoyed all of the stories included here.
One section is devoted to “Liner Notes”, and this one is from the liner notes to Billy Bathgate (also highly recommended). He describes a fugue state in which he is walking, yet dreaming:
“…it walks me through the underworld of the dreaming masses, where this pudgy demon of truth, W.C. Fields, with his dirty top hat, his run-down elegance of manners, his drunken scrollwork of a personality, presides over the technology of our souls…the clown won’t go away, you see…leading him through the window over the great landscape of the underworld that looks so beautiful from the window of this safe house and showing him what it really is. And he sees the bubbling sulfur pits of intentions, and the slake mountain of ideals, and great gray ash as far as he can see, the ashes of innocence creased by rivers of blood.”
Not everything he writes is in this flowery style, lest it exhaust us; instead, he intersperses it with other brilliantly funny work. “A House on the Plains” is dry wit at its best. Earle and his mother roam from one town to another, and gradually we come to understand why they have to keep moving. In one location, Earle is to call his mother “Aunt Dora”, and his mother has really outdone herself. Earle is used to a certain level of weirdness, but he can’t help inquiring, in the wake of her many troubling preparations for what is to come, “Aunt Dora, I said, what are we up to here?” (The author uses no quotation marks in this story, but it won’t muddy the meaning at all…and he makes up for it with his grammar police references in the final story, for which the book is titled.)
“Walter John Harmon” was one of my favorites; it features a religious cult, and is so wry and cutting that it made me laugh out loud in places.
The final piece, in which the writer makes better use of repetition as figurative language than anyone I have ever read before, is the coup de grace, and one can see why it is placed last; it leaves one holding the book with the sure and certain knowledge that it cannot be given away to a friend or relative, but must be nested softly back on the shelf. In my case, it will go in a small section of novels written by this remarkable word smith.
Has it just been published? Oh no no no. You will have to work to find it as I did. Well, of course you could check with various online retailers, and likely you would find a copy more easily than my breathless treasure hunt in the back stacks at Magus.
But if you love and respect good writing, you will do yourself a favor if you get a hold of it, one way or another, and dive in as soon as you can offer your complete attention.