three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
user_rating: 
0
A-SweetLandStoriesThis collection of five stories speaks to the dismal human condition. "A House on the Plains" is a modern, Midwestern Gothic horror tale, while the other four travel down less bloody, but equally sensationalistic, paths. "Baby Wilson" recounts the adventures of a couple that tries to redress the wrongs of their baby-snatcher days. "Jolene: A Life" follows a young woman through her cycles of incest, abuse, and poverty. "Walter John Harmon" describes the progress of a cult led by a charismatic leader, and "Child, Found Dead in the Rose Garden" features the mystery of a child’s body found in the White House. Each story touches on the power and survival of ordinary—and not so ordinary—people.
Random House. 147 pages. $22.95.
ISBN: 1400062047

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"Doctorow is a riveting storyteller who has added just the right touch of bitterness to these affecting tales." Tess Lewis

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"In the tradition of the best American fiction, Sweet Land Stories prods the beached whale of the American dream in order to examine its underbelly. Less complex and tangled than his recent novels, these are deceptively simple but subtle morality tales that showcase Doctorow’s deftness as a storyteller." Heller McAlpin

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"Doctorow’s sweet land is a roiling place of possibility and promise riddled with characters often unaware, or unwilling to accept, their own broken lives. It has something in common with the flat-roofed landscape of private epiphanies in Raymond Carver or Richard Ford stories, but Doctorow’s horizons are wider, and his moral vision is deeper. … As ever, Doctorow remains a concise and elegant stylist." Matt Weiland

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Doctorow finesses the short story form with impressive skill, luring the reader with his trademark compassionate cynicism as he scrutinizes the many versions of a failed American Dream." Beth Taylor

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"Doctorow shines plenty of light on contemporary society in Sweet Land Stories, but it’s a harsh glare that those looking for escapism in their fiction might recoil from." Jeff Baker

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"Though it’s refreshing to see Mr. Doctorow once again using his gift for storytelling—instead of serving up pretentious meditations about the art of storytelling—the tales in this volume are so attenuated that they feel more like outlines or movie treatments than full-fledged stories. … The people in these stories tend to be paper doll creations: flat, one-dimensional and painted in one or two primary colors." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Each critic professes great respect for Doctorow, who, at age 73 and many awards later, has earned it. However, there the split begins. Many critics hail these stories, four of which were published previously in The New Yorker, as an achievement that perfectly captures the American nation’s mood, its aberrant characters, and dark underbelly. But others dismiss the book as a slim, shallow effort that does not live up to Doctorow’s past work. Common complaints? "A House on the Plains" doesn’t fit in with the other four stories, and "Child, Found Dead in the Rose Garden," which could have been a powerful political piece, doesn’t live up to its promise.

Also by the Author

AS-BookDanielThe Book of Daniel | E.L. Doctorow (1971): Daniel is supposed to be writing his Ph.D. dissertation; instead he composes a book of his life, one in which his parents were executed as spies. A meditation on relations among individuals, families, and nations.

AS-RagtimeRagtime | E.L. Doctorow (1975): A tapestry of American life in 1906.

AS-BillyBathgateBilly Bathgate | E.L. Doctorow (1989): Winner of the 1990 Pen/Faulkner Award. Fifteen-year-old Billy falls under the spell of mobster Dutch Shultz. Only after an affair with Shultz’s girlfriend does Billy begin to question the glamour of mob life.