E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime (1975), Loon Lake (1980), and Billy Bathgate (1989), is much better known as a novelist than as a short-story writer. Acknowledging that the novel has always been his typical rhythm, Doctorow said in an interview after the publication of Sweet Land Stories that while editing Best American Stories: 2000, he discovered that many authors were not writing the tight, epiphanic Chekhovian story but rather were going back to the more leisurely, plot-based story typical of the nineteenth century. The result of this realization are these five long stories, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker.
The stories are primarily plot-based, recounted in a seemingly artless, casual tone—three told in first-person voice by deluded male narrators and two narrated in third-person voice by ironic storytellers. What is arguably “sweet” about these stories is the naïveté and innocence, thus ultimately the self-delusion, of the central characters as they seek to achieve the American Dream, find transcendence in a savior, or uphold their ideals in the face of political chicanery.
“A House on the Plains” is a comic horror, a con artist story told by the slow-witted son of a “merry widow” mother. After the father, whom Mama says was pretty smart “for a man,” mysteriously dies, the widow thinks it best that she and her son leave Chicago for a small town where no one will jump to conclusions. Once settled, she takes in three orphans from a New York social organization and ominously declares soon after that if they do not come up with some money before winter, the only resources they will have is the insurance she took out on the three children.
Mama, a bigger-than-life, pragmatic believer in the American Dream, advertises for immigrant men, particularly Swedes and Norwegians, to join her in a partnership in a bountiful farm in the Midwest. One by one, the men who visit her disappear and her bank account increases from their insurance policies. The brother of one of the missing men arrives and begins to ask questions. Mama, nonplussed, formulates an escape plan that is treated as blithely as the rest of the horrors in this comic tall tale. Quite simply, she cuts off the heads of the nosey brother and her housekeeper to make it look as if she and her son have died in a fire. She frames her handyman for the arson.
The story ends with the handyman in jail, Mama in California, and the narrator son reunited with his sexual partner from Chicago. The fact that three orphans, several innocent men, and the housekeeper are all dead is just part of the comic tone of this tale that makes one admire Mama for achieving the American Dream of financial independence.
Doctorow has said that “Baby Wilson,” chosen for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2003, was inspired by his seeing a young woman in a long paisley dress walking along the Pacific Coast Highway in Southern California. Although Doctorow says he is not sure why he made this woman into Karen Robileaux, the kidnapper of a newborn baby, he thinks he must have decided as a premise for the story that while a man would kidnap a child for ransom, a woman would want the child for herself.
The story is told by Lester Romanowski, Karen's shiftless boyfriend. When she brings the stolen baby home, she declares it is her own newborn child that she is giving to Lester to be his son. Lester decides he is going to reform himself into a person who makes executive decisions. He wins some money at gambling, procures six fake credit cards, and goes to sleep thinking what a “great country this [is].”
In a family van he buys with an American Express Gold Card, Lester and his “imitation wife and child” head west, to California. With the sun lighting their way like a “gold road,” he has a revelation of a new life, in which he will become a dependable father with a full-time job. However, his dreams are dashed when he hears on the radio that the family of the kidnapped child has received a ransom note. “Can you believe the evil in this world?” he asks Karen, who articulates the theme of the story by saying that she has faith that people can be redeemed. To make a much-too-long story short, Lester and Karen drop off the baby at a church and head to Alaska, another place where people live in relative privacy, where nobody asks too many questions. When Karen gets pregnant, Lester declares himself alert and “ready for...
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