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Peering into dark corners

Sweet Land Stories E.L. Doctorow Random House: 150 pp., $22.95

May 16, 2004|Heller McAlpin | Heller McAlpin is a contributor to Book Review and other publications.

In this age of skepticism, when a writer uses the word "sweet" in a title, our irony detector shifts to high alert. We know not to expect saccharine sentimentality. A wistful aura of disappointment pervades Doris Lessing's "The Sweetest Dream," Russell Banks' "The Sweet Hereafter," Reginald Gibbons' "Sweetbitter" and Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth." What is sweet in the land of the free and the home of the brave for the misfits in E.L. Doctorow's new book, "Sweet Land Stories," is mainly the freedom to nurture their personal delusions.

Set all around the country, these five stories feature characters on the fringes of society who are so taken by their own skewed logic and convictions that they fail to recognize their behavior as aberrant. Yet Doctorow manages to find some measure of sweetness in the hopelessly naive son who abets his mother in luring suitors into her lethal trap and expects his girlfriend not to mind his murderous activities; the boyfriend who goes along with his crazy girlfriend's kidnapping of a baby because he doesn't want to upset her; and the young woman with neither family nor education to support her who keeps seeking shelter with the wrong men.

With his third novel, "The Book of Daniel," Doctorow emerged in 1971 as an outspoken critic of injustice. In his fourth, "Ragtime," he asked whether "injustice, once suffered, [is] a mirror universe, with laws of logic and principles of reason the opposite of civilization's." It is a question he continues to pursue in book after book by entering his deviant characters' mind-sets to project their warped reasoning in sharp focus. With uncommon sympathy, he illuminates the sincerity of their convictions, however misguided and antisocial they may be.

"Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden" is the most overtly political piece in "Sweet Land Stories." It is a fine example of Doctorow's belief that literature should be a voice for the liberal humanist conscience. Narrated from the point of view of an FBI agent, it concerns a bizarre case in which the shrouded body of a 6-year-old boy is discovered under folding chairs in the White House Rose Garden after an arts event.

Plotted like a thriller, "Child, Dead" succeeds, in remarkably short space, at encapsulating Agent Molloy's journey from hopeful engagement to disillusionment as he investigates this alarming breach in the White House's tight security. Molloy comes to understand the perpetrator's motives very well; it's the government's "politically driven interference," underhanded secrecy and cover-up that troubles him. The sweetness of this disturbing story is that a man who has "spent his life contending with deviant behavior, and only occasionally wondering if some of it was not justifiable," acts on his convictions when he uncovers aspects in the case that affront his sense of propriety.

In "Walter John Harmon," Doctorow charts a different sort of faith. The narrator and his wife join a religious community they learn about on the Internet. At its center is an unlikely prophet, Harmon, a former garage mechanic. He bases his community on a concept he calls the "Transference of Sin," whereby he alleviates his flock of all their sins and their material wealth by taking them upon himself -- depositing the money in several Swiss bank accounts. Furthermore, his ministry "annuls the fornications of a secular society" by a ritual purification communion with all the wives, "even the plainest." It's a diabolical move that enables him to justify his worst behavior.

"Walter John Harmon" is a compelling study of people so desperate for spirituality that they cling stubbornly to the inverted logic of cults featuring intricate, often patently ridiculous moral imperatives. With its so-called "Unfolding Revelations," Harmon's prophecy evokes David Koresh-like cults as well as some of the more extreme fundamentalist Mormon sects. The narrator, who as a lawyer is charged with defending the community to the outside world, insists, "We are not idiots. We are not cult victims," and, depressingly, by capitalizing on his ambitions, manages to prove that assertion true.

"Baby Wilson" takes a marvelously wry approach to self-delusion. Its larcenous narrator longs to "reform into a person who makes executive decisions," but instead goes along with his off-kilter girlfriend after she kidnaps a newborn she pretends is her own. Responding to the alarming news reports as they flee across state borders in a stolen car, he says, "Hey ... it is just my slightly crazy girl Karen. You don't have to worry, we're not kidnappers, man." When he hears that someone has sent the parents a ransom note, he rants, "Can you believe the evil in this world? That some slime would con those poor people and cash in on their suffering?"

The naive, gullible voice reaches its apotheosis in "A House on the Plains," a macabre tale of a murderous mother-son team. Because poor Earle is so clueless, Doctorow raises the troubling question of who, exactly, is the victim here.

In the tradition of the best American fiction, "Sweet Land Stories" prods the beached whale of the American dream in order to examine its underbelly. Less complex and tangled than his recent novels, these are deceptively simple but subtle morality tales that showcase Doctorow's deftness as a storyteller. *

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