Best known for trailblazing works of historical fiction like The Book Of Daniel and Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow isn’t often cited for his short-form chops. That’s a shame, because All The Time In The World: New And Selected Stories, which collects six new pieces and six previously printed in Lives Of The Poets and Sweet Land Stories, benefits from the unforced profundity and convincingly drawn characters that have served his novels so well.
Those characters are often struggling at the margins, attempting to carve out some semblance of a home for themselves after misplaced confidence or dumb luck drove them out the first time. That’s the case for “Wakefield”’s Howard, who decides, almost casually, to leave his wife Diana after a tension-filled cocktail party and an encounter with an invading raccoon. (Like a few of the men in this collection, he’s irrationally jealous, and it’s partly the fear of losing what he has that ultimately robs him of it.) Unlike John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, Wakefield doesn’t even make it as far as the family car. Instead, he holes up in the atelier above the garage and watches as his wife and children come to grips with his disappearance. It’s the fantasy of sullen teenagers everywhere, only here, it’s lived out by a middle-aged man with a law practice to maintain.
He’s laughable, but Doctorow knows how to make him sympathetic, too, and Wakefield fits right in with the book’s other doomed protagonists, who together provide the collection with surprising breadth even when its characters share the same blind spots. “Walter John Harmon” tells the story of a Waco-like compound from the perspective of a cuckolded cultist who worships at the feet of a proudly fallible messiah. Mysteries both practical and spiritual plague the parish priest from “Heist,” whose sermons are borderline-excommunication-worthy, and whose choir robes and crucifixes keep turning up for sale on street corners and in back alleys.
In spite of Doctorow’s insistence in the preface that novels begin as acts of exploration, while stories arrive fully formed, “Heist” was later expanded into the novel City Of God, and “Liner Notes: The Songs Of Billy Bathgate” eventually became Billy Bathgate. That uncertainty about where exactly to end a short story is felt throughout All The Time In The World, and more than one piece stops on the brink of a tantalizing, infuriating precipice. While the abruptness of the stories’ conclusions go from rattling to occasionally repetitive, though, the openings are always fresh, as Doctorow skillfully shifts perspective and style to better examine how the same weaknesses that make us human can also rob us of our humanity.