American chronicles

There is a big bad something lurking in the American soul, and E.L. Doctorow knows a thing or two about it. From his 1961 debut novel, Welcome to Hard Times, to his 1989 blockbuster, Billy Bathgate, Doctorow has explored where greed and ambition collides. Even the most innocent dreamers in his books warp toward criminal life. In his latest book, Sweet Land Stories, Doctorow hauls this preoccupation out to the high lonesome prairies, conjuring a cast of religious visionaries, orphans on the lam, and a mother-and-son team that does more damage to an Illinois town than an April twister.

If the characters in this collection of short stories share any quality, it’s their singular belief in motion. In the opening piece, “A Home on the Plains,” a teenage son and his widowed mother move from Chicago to a brick farmhouse and proceed to fleece Swedish and Norwegian suitors. Although there are hints they’ve fled a criminal past, the landscape, it seems, is what encourages them to grab, take and steal. As the narrator says, “I was by now thinking I could wrest some hope from the loneliness of the farm with views of the plains as far as you could see.” After their plan has borne its awful fruit, they torch their prairie idyll and hit the road again.

Motion means both escape and redemption in Sweet Land Stories, but not in the spiritual sense. In “Baby Wilson” a man’s girlfriend comes home with a baby she abducted from the hospital. Rather than bring the tot back, the narrator shoves everyone into his SUV and lights out for the highway. He dumps the car, gets a new one and procures a few stolen credit cards before he even begins to question whether he’s doing the right thing. In “Jolene: A Life,” a hard-luck orphan bounces from one deadbeat husband to the next, crisscrossing the Middle West and West before she lands on her own two feet in—where else?—Hollywood.

Four of the five stories in this slim volume previously appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Reading them together shows Doctorow has moved beyond previous work to mine new territory. In the past, Doctorow’s characters wrestled with good and evil—agonized over it even. Here, his cast carries no such moral weight. The characters are pragmatists first and foremost, and they will do whatever it takes to get what they want. When Jolene’s firstborn is stolen from her by an abusive husband, she coldly considers killing the lout before she realizes doing so would ensure she’d never see the baby again.

In the final two stories, Doctorow explores what happens when this kind of lethal pragmatism is enshrined by righteousness. “Walter John Harmon” chronicles a peaceful religious cult’s evolution toward violence. The final story, though the weakest in the collection, is perhaps the most topical. An FBI deputy fights an uphill battle against a presidential administration trying to cover up why a dead child wound up on the White House lawn.

Though Doctorow overplays his hand here, the message is clear: America is a great place because it allows people to strive, achieve and recreate themselves if necessary. Sweet Land Stories paints a grim portrait of what happens when those birthrights are abused.