How enticing, this idea of walking away from one’s life, of retreating from an unkind world. How dull and constraining to follow the rules. How much better to do precisely what you want. Or is it? The characters in E.L. Doctorow’s latest collection of stories find themselves compelled by the idea of escape from — what? Some don’t even know. “I was not trapped,” admits one protagonist. “I just felt as if I were.”
All the Time in the World features six new stories as well as other Doctorow classics, and they’re all distinctive, sharply focused, glistening with crisp language. Winner of three National Book Critics Circle awards and a couple of PEN/Faulkners, Doctorow is best known for his novels, which include Homer & Langley, The March, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and World’s Fair, which won the National Book Award. But he’s also keenly alert to the demands of short fiction, the blend of nuance and straightforwardness that makes stories hum with resonance and vitality.
“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 presiding anger, but in any case something that proposes a meaningful world,” the author writes in the preface. “A story, by contrast, usually comes to you as a situation, with the characters and setting irrevocably attached to it.” Here the characters rattle uncomfortably in their skins, and the settings range widely. Some stories are set in Doctorow’s trademark urban northeast (“Lord, there is something so exhausted about the New York waterfront, as if the smell of the sea were oil, as if boats were buses, as if all Heaven were a garage hung with girlie calendars, the months to come already leafed and fingered in black grease”). Others take place way down south or west. One story is set in Europe. Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate re-imagines the adult life of a familiar character. Wherever they take place, these memorable stories reflect a novelist’s intimate understanding of human frailty and penchant for delusion.
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