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Book Review: 'All the Time in the World' by E.L. Doctorow

For the men in this new short-story collection, life encompasses one exhausting mystery after another.

March 20, 2011|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • E.L. Doctorow, who wrote "All the Time in the World."
E.L. Doctorow, who wrote "All the Time in the World." (Francesca Magnani, Random…)

All the Time in the World

New and Selected Stories

E.L. Doctorow

Random House: 278 pp., $26

Although E.L. Doctorow would seem to be consumed with history — his best-known novel, "Ragtime," offers a pastiche of America at the turn of the 20th century, a nation wrestling with modernity and its discontents, while "The March" (2005) reimagines Sherman's march to the sea during the Civil War as a series of personal disasters — he has spent much of his career evoking outsiders who feel alienated from what is expected of them. Daniel Lewin of 1971's "The Book Of Daniel," trying to make sense of his parents who, like the Rosenbergs, were executed as atomic spies; the narrator of his 1984 novella "Lives of the Poets," informing us that "[d]ereliction is the state of mind given to middle-aged men alone, not to women"; Thomas Pemberton, the Episcopal priest whose spiritual crisis centers the 2000 novel "City of God": These men are adrift in the universe, unable to reconcile themselves to family, to mortality, to their own irresolvable desires.

In "All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories," many of the characters — including Pemberton, who appears in the story, "Heist" — suffer from a similar emotional exhaustion, the sense of having been caught unexpectedly in the middle of their lives with no clear through-line between the present and the past. As for the future, it is something of a glaring blankness, less a promise than a burden to be endured.

"Some vast — what to call it? — indifference … slowly creeps up on you with age … becomes more insistent with age," a character explains in the lovely "Edgemont Drive," a story told entirely in dialogue, in which an elderly poet returns to the home in which he was raised to haunt (in the most literal sense imaginable) the family that lives there now. "It's a kind of wearing out, I suppose. As if life had become threadbare, with the light peeking through."

"Edgemont Drive" is one of six new stories in "All the Time in the World." Six others — three apiece — come from Doctorow's two previous collections, "Lives of the Poets" (the title comes from the novella) and 2003's "Sweet Land Stories." New, of course, may be a relative term, since "Heist" was published in 1997 and "Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate" first appeared in New American Review in 1968. Rather than make the material seem recycled, however, this gives us a sense of breadth, of movement, of the scope of Doctorow's career.

Here we have the point of any new and selected volume, but in this instance, it's complicated because Doctorow has never published much short work. His stories, then, exist as analogues to his longer fiction, set pieces more than symphonies. Doctorow touches on this in a brief preface, noting that whereas "[a] novel may begin in your mind as an evocative image, a bit of conversation, a piece of music, an incident you've read about in someone's life, a piece of music … [a] story, by contrast, usually comes to you as a situation, with the characters and setting irrevocably attached to it."

What he's suggesting is that novels require a certain fluidity, "in the nature of an exploration," while stories remain more fixed. This may be why, to me, "Heist," which was adapted for "City of God," and "Liner Notes" are the two least satisfying efforts: the former because it lacks the heft, the nuance, of the novel that grew out of it, and the latter for the opposite reason, because, in telling the story of a Bob Dylan-esque singer-songwriter, it has nothing to do with the novel, "Billy Bathgate," that, more than 20 years later, Doctorow would go on to write.

And yet this too is in the nature of a new and selected, to operate as a bit of a grab bag, and in so doing to let us read the work anew. To be sure, that's the case with the six older stories, which trace, with grace and acuity, the tension between longing and obligation, between who we are and who we mean to be.

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