Old tales, new novel lack aim
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A note of explanation is in order for this latest Doctorow book: In the publishing business, "new" doesn't mean "new," but "collected in a book for the first time."
Hence, there are no truly new short stories by the 80-year-old writer in this collection; some are picked up from his 2004 set of stories, "Sweet Land Stories." Three appeared in the 1980 collection, "The Lives of the Poets." The latest, "Assimilation" and "Edgemont Drive," were published last year by The New Yorker.
Not privy to the thinking of editors who assembled this group, I can only imagine that the intention is to offer readers a snapshot of Mr. Doctorow's career in short fiction during the period when he was also writing some of his finest novels including "The March," "Billy Bathgate" and "The Waterworks" along with such unsatisfying efforts as "City of God" and "Homer and Langley."
"All the Time in the World," which borders on the world of fantasy, is the monologue of a reclusive man who fends off the world by running through it, a place much like New York City's Central Park reservoir, a popular running track.
The character sheds personal details like drops of perspiration from his mindless jogs. All of his questions are answered by the reply, "You have all the time in the world."
Eventually, this "reality" evolves into what might be Mr. Doctorow's version of the eternity of death as his character is no longer "corporeally equipped."
The tale, published two years ago in the Kenyon Review (the author is a graduate of Kenyon College), is a jarring conclusion to this eclectic collection.
Like Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, Pa., is another post-industrial community with a tendency to keep looking over its shoulder as the rest of the world moves on.
Bathsheba Monk is a native of that territory, a U.S. Army veteran who weaves the threads of racism, the sins of industrialism and Native American spiritualism into a tale that resembles one of those potholders we made in summer camp -- full of uneven gaps.
Told in alternating voices, "Nude Walker" follows the ill-starred romance of Kat, a descendant of steel barons, and Max, son of a Lebanese businessman who has taken over the rundown city with a strip club and gambling casino. National Guard members, they met in Afghanistan.
Add to the mix one of those "magic minorities" who provide the spiritual dimension to American fiction -- Wind, a Native American who flies on the back of a giant blue heron -- and a cast of disparate locals and there are simply too many voices to harmonize into a cohesive chorus. (I almost forgot toxic waste bubbling in the background.)
First Published April 17, 2011 12:00 am