All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories

  • By E.L. Doctorow
  • Random House
  • 304 pp.

A collection of mostly outstanding tales from one of the masters.

Stories are self-announcing, their voice and circumstances “decided and immutable.” So says E.L. Doctorow is his preface to his latest collection of short stories. For the most part, Doctorow does what he says. All stories in All the Time in the World are skillfully executed by a master wordsmith. A few are outstanding.

The best story is the first, “Wakefield,” presumably an homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story of the same name. Here, Doctorow brings us especially close to his protagonist. We sit right on Howard Wakefield’s shoulders as he finds himself, to his own surprise, deserting his wife and two teenage daughters, running away to the attic of his own garage where no one has been for years. He hides out and sleeps by day and scavenges in garbage cans at night, learning how to get discarded food while it’s still warm. He watches as the police and relatives come and go from his house, treating him as dead. He forces himself to sleep in the open. He toughens up, becomes almost feral, his hair and beard a long matted mess that disguises him on those few occasions he dares to walk about town in the daylight. He swings between happiness in his new life to utter despair. Two teenagers with Down syndrome live in the basement of the house next door. Wakefield stumbles into their rooms one night, and they all become friends. The teenagers adopt Wakefield as they would a pet, bringing him sandwiches and water.

All the while he spies from his attic hideaway, and occasionally from beneath an open window, on his wife Diana, and their daughters. When Diana’s former boyfriend shows up for dinner, Wakefield sees that they are all learning to live without him, which impacts him terribly. The story moves methodically to its conclusion, commanding our interest all the way, and leaving us with the portrait of a character we will never forget.

Also excellent is “A House on the Plains.” Here Doctorow is at his cool, distanced best. In a mid-nineteenth century setting, the young protagonist and his elegant, imperious mother – Mama – move to an isolated farm, leaving a questionable and mysterious past (and the narrator’s girlfriend) in Chicago. Settled on the farm, Mama runs some newspaper ads for hard-working gentlemen of means she hopes to entice to share her farming enterprise and, we presume, to marry her. The men – mostly “Norwegies” from Minnesota – come and go and we hear nothing further about them; Mama does not marry. Meanwhile we learn that the crude and unattractive handyman has won Mama’s favor, though we don’t know how. We also learn that the balance in Mama’s bank account improves inexplicably. Layer by layer the onion is peeled, masterfully, gradually revealing what is going on. I won’t spoil the ending except to say that, upon finishing this story, I had a vision of the author putting down his pen and saying softly to himself, “Top that, Stephen King.”

I have little patience with plotless stories, and there are several here. Doctorow aficionados will enjoy the dreamlike quality of “All the Time in the World,” and the poetic language of “Lunar Notes: The Songs of Bill Bathgate,” but I can’t pluck anything lasting from them. “All the Time…” gives us an interesting character who is, I think, dreaming. His voices always tell him that he, or they, have all the time in the world. “Until what?” “Until something happens.” But nothing ever does.

The Billy Bathgate songs, preceded by numbers that (I think) announce the minutes needed to sing or read them, are full of wonderful images and Doctorow’s masterful prose. Some readers will love them. To me, they wander confusingly.

I also have trouble with not ascribed, unpunctuated dialog and “Edgemont Drive” is made entirely of it. It’s an interesting (though hardly profound) story of a rudderless poet who seeps into the lives of a couple who inhabit his former (and still spiritual) home. They take him in and he repays their hospitality by dying in the upstairs bedroom. There’s nice irony here, but for me the story is undermined by having to backtrack to figure out who is saying what to whom.

Also somewhat abstract is “The Hunter,” the story of a schoolteacher who seems to be losing her grip. She behaves, by the standards of those around her, in irrational ways though we readers admire her pluck. We never meet the hunter of the title; he fires a rifle from a distance and a bullet hits the wall of a deserted mansion where the teacher stands. Was he aiming for her? Is it a dream? Has she lost her sanity? We don’t know.

I liked “Jolene: A Life.” The story is told objectively, from a distance, and Doctorow can pull you in to his stories, coolly.

Jolene starts early linking up with men, mostly bad ones. Doctorow’s early description of her lays out the theme: “She was a home wrecker but also a widow but also a juvenile with no living relatives.” Jolene is locked up in a sanatorium for a while, escapes by taking a female attendant as a lover, marries a tattoo artist, leaves him, goes to Las Vegas, links up with wealthy Sal, splits, and marries Brad G. Benton in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But being married to two men at once is by no means the worst of her troubles. As the story approaches its conclusion we move in close to Jolene and the ending is wrenching. I not only felt for her, but expect to remember her.

The remaining stories are solid, effective, rewarding, though not on the level of “A House on the Prairie” or, especially, “Wakefield.” “Willi” packs a punch, a story of adultery and violence on a farm in 1910. The ending is abrupt and startling. It is another tale that peels away layers as Doctorow slowly reveals what’s going on.

“The Writer in the Family” is a nice showpiece for the author’s always engaging irony. A young man is asked by relatives to write letters from his dead father to his father’s decrepit mother who is deemed too frail to bear the shock of her son’s death. The writer manages to sabotage the process.

“Assimilation” tells of Ramón, a character I like, who accepts $2,000 to marry an Eastern European girl so she can get a green card and, eventually, marry her own boyfriend and bring him to the States. There are Mafia undercurrents here and the evolving relationship between Ramón and the girl, while not unexpected, is quirky, real and satisfying. But too many questions remain at the end.

“Walter John Harmon,” like half the stories in this book, has been published in an earlier collection. The title character is a guru prophet in a utopian religious community, revered by all the members. When he unexpectedly leaves the community we get a satisfying dose of the author’s religious views. The faithful, left behind, decide that Walter John Harmon, who they finally understand has deserted them (taking one of their wives with him) had in fact created a spiritual miracle, a beautiful paradox of “a prophesy fulfilling itself by means of its negation.” Hallelujah.

Religious themes also move the action in “The Heist.” An eight-foot hollow brass crucifix is stolen from a church and deposited, somehow, on the roof of a synagogue. The minister who pursues his church’s cross seems to be coming apart at the seams, but one must work hard to figure out what’s going on here.

Six of the stories in this collection have been published in book form previously (“Walter John Harmon,” “A House on the Plains” and “Jolene: A Life”) in Sweet Land Stories; “The Writer in the Family,” “Willi” and “The Hunter” in Lives of the Poets. But you have to buy this book to get “Wakefield.” It’s worth it.

Phil Harvey’s short stories have appeared in 13 publications.

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