Tuesday, August 21, 2012

All the Time in the World

E.L. Doctorow’s newest short story collection, All the Time in the World, is a collection of twelve stories that have been published previously in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Kenyon Review, and The New American Review.  Moreover, six of the stories have been included in previous short story collections,  meaning that only six of the twelve are appearing in book form for the first time.  Because, as the book jacket notes, the stories were written over a period of “many years,” the collection is an opportunity for first-time readers of Doctorow short stories to experience a representative selection of styles favored by the author.

And, stylistically, these stories are all over the map.  That means, of course, that the appeal of individual stories will vary from reader to reader.  I, for example, generally favor stories with relatively direct approaches to plot and theme, and I consider it a bonus if the stories also offer fully developed characters.  Stories with a less linear approach, particularly those that use a stream-of-consciousness style, work less successfully for me.  Several of the stories in All the Time in the World are of that type – and two or three of them, I confess, did leave me a bit mystified.

Several of these dozen stories are particularly notable, including the first in the collection, “Wakefield.”  This is the story of a businessman who, almost by accident, fails to return to his family one evening after the return leg of his work commute is disrupted by a massive power failure.  Instead, he hides out above the family garage, from where - over several months - he watches his wife and two daughters get on with the rest of their lives while he creates a strange new existence for himself.

Among other topics, are stories about a murderous mother and son, an inane religious cult, women hardened by life’s demands, a stranger who longs only to get inside his childhood home one more time, and a teenage boy obliged to write letters from his dead father to his senile grandmother.  One story happens in the small town America that existed shortly after the Civil War, others in America’s large modern cities and suburbs. 

Taken as a whole, the stories confirm that E.L. Doctorow is, despite his having produced so few short stories over his long career, a master of that craft.  Although the author will always be thought of first as a novelist, the stories selected for All the Time in the World prove he can write short stories with the best of his peers.

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